Sunday, 16 June 2024



 Though Oita Trinita was a part of the second wave of J.League development, joining the J2 in its inaugural (1999) season, the "Terrible Turtles"  have experienced a head-spinning vriety of ups and downs in their relatively brief history.  Located in Northern Kyushu, the team was founded in 1994, as Oita Football Club. Upon joining the J2 in 1999, it changed its name to Oita Trinita. The name "Trinita" is formed from the combination of "Trinity" and "Oita", and recalls the fact that the area was a center of Christian (Jesuit) missionary work in the 1600s.

Despite the team's relatively small home town and grassroots origin, Oita Trinita's impressive performance once turning professional -- vying for the J2 title in both 1999 and 2000, finally winning it in 2002, and rising into the upper-middle ranks of the J1 not long afterward. The sudden success attracted a huge and faithful following. Even at the very start there were signs of great potential. In its very first year of existence, the team won the regional championship and was accepted as a member of the JFL's regional league. In its first season as a regional team, Trinita proceeded to win the Kyushu Regional Championship, and the following year it won both the regional title, and a share of the nationwide championship of regional teams, qualifying it for promotion to the JFL in 1996.

Oita made steady progress as a JFL club, advancing from 10th place in its first year of membership to 6th place in 1998. This was good enough to secure the team a spot in the J2 when the league was formed in 1999. But Oita's rapid progress did not end there. In the J2's inaugural year, the team finished third, failing to qualify for promotion to the J.League by just a single point. In 2000, the team once again came within a single victory of promotion to the J1, falling short due to Urawa Reds' last-minute victory in the final match of the season. Then, in 2001, the team collapsed in the final month of the season to dash fans' hopes of promotion once again. Although the roller-coaster ride of hope and despair provided fans with lots of excitement, and contributed to the team's rising popularity, fans were tremendously relieved when the team managed to maintain their form in 2002, and finally win promotion to the top-flight division.

Oita Trinita has continued its steady progress in the J1, as well. After just barely avoiding relegation in 2003, a more offence-minded Trinita sprang some upset wins in 2004, and though they remained at the lower end of the table, they bettered their record slightly. Things got off to a rocky start in 2005, and at midseason it looked like Trinita were ripe for relegation. But a coaching change brought in the very adept and charismatic Pericles Chamusca, who quickly got Trinita back on their feet and coached them to an unbeaten string of 11 matches at the tail end of the season. Oita claimed its best finish yet, at 11th, and coach Chamusca began the task of transforming the small club into a giant-killer, by instilling the same energy and self-control that the 43-year-old manager exudes.

Though they are now starting to taste some success, and enjoy a steadily growing fan base and revenue stream, Trinita still has one of the smaller budgets among J1 clubs, and their progress, though steady, has not been particularly swift or dramatic. From that perspective, the club's decision in 2008 to adopt a turtle as their mascot might seem appropriate. In truth, the symbol seems to be a very apt one, since Trinita was starting to develop a reputation for having a very tough shell

Coach Chamusca responded to the challenges of running a shoestring operation by adopting a unique style of play. In the past, coaches who tried to adopt defensive strategies in the J.League found it difficult to achieve success, due to the very open style of play and the fact that most teams -- especially title contenders -- invariably play for the win over the final 15 minutes of a tight contest, even if they risk conceding a goal and dropping all three points. Weaker teams that play for the 0-0 or 1-1 draw often find themselves overrun in the final few minutes, and rarely manage to get the points they are shooting for. This fact has cost more than a few J.League newcomers their coaching jobs.

But coach Chamusca's football philosophy, while aimed at keeping down the score, does not really deserve to be described as defensive when compared with the sort of anti-football that one often sees from smaller teams in Europe. On the contrary, Trinita played a very aggressive style that rarely descended into "playing for the draw". By keeping the pace of play relatively slow and limiting the other team's chances, then springing sudden, incisive counterattacks, Trinita battled their way to victory in the 2008 Nabisco (league) Cup, and earned the team its first piece of silverware. Though they played much of the contest on the back foot, Trinita's clever trapping and swift counterattacks produced two second-half goals and carried them past Shimizu S-Pulse.

But the Terrible Turtles had only a few months to bask in the warm glow of their cup success. Even in 2008, it was clear to many viewers that the anti-football concept that coach Chamusca was developing in Oita had little place in Japan. It isnt just a question of whether or not a team can attract fans with stoic, uninspiring defensive football. The more serious problem is that defensive tactics usually do not work over the long term. They can be temporarily successful if opponents are not pre-warned, and do not spend much time devising strategies to break down a stacked defence. But after watching the team stifle creativity for a full 12 months, opponents gritted their teeth, held their noses, and responded with counter-tactics that produced a prolonged series of 0-1 and 1-2 results for Trinita in early 2009. Injuries also took their toll on the team, and by midseason the Turtles were already dead in the water, and floating belly-up towards the J2.

To make matters worse, Trinita had responded to their success in 2008 with unwarranted optimism. The team's finances were just starting to recover in the late 00s, but a programme of extravagant spending and unreasonable assumptions about their success in 2009 dug a massive hole that filled up with red ink as soon as the team's relegation became a certainty. At the end of 2009, Trinita was not only on its way to the J2, they also were inundated with debt, and needed a bail-out from the league in order to keep creditors at bay. The J.League, naturally, insisted that the team put its books in order immediately, and this meant selling off every player with any real promise or competitive skill. Today, there are a host of top J1 stars and National Team prospects who got their start in the Trinita or Trinita Youth ranks, but nobody left from the true "glory years" under Chamusca. To make matters worse, the few youngsters coming up into the team nowadays who start to show similar promise are almost certain to leave before they reach the age of 21.

Despite the huge weight of debt, and the loss of all their experienced players, few expected the Turtles' collapse to be so complete. At first, the restructuring had positive results. Trinita hired the clever, popular, yet no-nonsense Kazuaki Tasaka as coach, and under his guidance put their book back in order, while steadily building a competitive unit using cast-offs from other teams.

Under Tasaka, the Turtles made another brief surge, battling their way into the promotion playoffs in 2012 and in an unlikely triumph over JEF United and Kyoto Sanga, claimed a spot in the J1 once more. Unfortunately, from the standpoint of financial and organizational stability, this was the worst thing that could have happened. With no budget to bring in new additions, Tasaka did everything he could think of to try to keep the Turtles competitive, but he was replaced at the close of the campaign after managing just two wins. 

The loss of Tasaka was an even bigger blow than relegation, as subsequent results would illustrate. In 2014 the team plunged to J2 mediocrity, and in 2015 -- to the shock of even neutral J.League fans -- the former J1 upstarts and cup winners finished 21st out of 22 teams, and were relegated to the J3. If nothing else, Oita's story serves as a warning to young and advancing clubs, about the dangers of reaching too high, and the punishment that awaits teams who try to achieve too much, too soon.

The recovery was slow, but at least Trinita was able to return to the J2 in just one year. It took some time to rebuild and recover from the self-inflicted damage done since the 2008 and 09 seasons, but the shock of falling all the way to the third division seemed to humble management. Former Trinita player Tomohiro Katanosaka took over as head coach in 2016, and wasted no time in rebuilding the club with clever acquisitions of experienced players from other J2 clubs. With veterans like Kenji Baba, Takuya Marutani, Kaoru Takayama and Toshio Shimakawa leading the way, Trinita climbed the J2 ladder swiftly and booked their return to J1 with a second-place finish, in 2018.

The brilliant irony of this whole sad tale is the fact that the Trinita mascot SHOULD have provided the perfect role model for a team trying to climb the ladder towards J.League success. As Aesop taught us, in the old fable about the tortoise and the hare: Slow and steady wins the race. Conversely, the overly bold and incautious turtle usually ends up in the soup. Now that Trinita have successfully negotiated one full season in the top-flight, the question fans are asking is whether they just might be able to revive memories of Cup glory. Hopefully they will remain patient, this time, and not try to add too many high-priced players, too fast. 

Now that the years of financial distress are behind them, the Terrible Turtles are hoping to settle in once more as a small but hard-shelled fixture of the J1. The prospects for long-term survival in the top-flight are not great, but if they can survive relegation for another year or two, improving finances might help the Turtles transition to a first-division roster.  The signing of striker Ado Onaiyu and Ryotaro Ito, in 2019, helped somewhat, though it may be hard to keep players like Noriaki Fujimoto and Yuta Misao in the fold for much longer. So long as Oita stick to the slow and steady philosophy, they should be able to avoid the calamities that hurt them so much in the mid 20'teens.

Team Results for 1999-2002

Year Rank Win D L GF GA G.Dif
90 ET
1999 (J2) 3 18 3 3 12 62 42 +20
2000 (J2) 3 26 0 3 11 80 38 +42
2001 (J2) 6 24 1 4 15 75 52 +23
2002 (J2) 1 28   10 6 67 34 +33

Team Results for 2003-Present

Year Rank Pts W D L GF GA G.Dif
2003 (1st) 14 15 4 3 8 20 21 -1
2003 (2nd) 16 11 1 8 6 7 16 -9
2004 (1st) 10 17 5 2 8 21 27 -6
2004 (2nd) 16 13 3 4 8 14 29 -15
2005 11 43 12 7 15 44 43 +1
2006 8 47 13 8 13 47 45 +2
2007 14 41 12 5 17 42 60 -18
2008 4 56 16 8 10 33 24 +9
2009 17 30 8 6 20 26 45 -19
2010 (J2) 15 41 10 11 15 39 49 -10
2011 (J2) 12 50 12 14 12 42 45 -3
2012 (J2) 6 71 21 8 13 59 40 +19
2013 18 14 2 8 24 31 67 -36
2014 (J2)  7 63 17 12 13 52 55 -3
2015 (J2) 21 38 8 14 20 41 51 -10
2016 (J3) 1 61 19 4 7 50 24 +26
2017 (J2) 9 64 17 13 12 58 50 +8
2018 (J2) 2 76 23 7 12 76 51 +25
2019 9 47 12 11 11 35 35 0
2020 11 43 11 10 13 36 45 -9
2021 18 35 9 8 21 31 55 -24
2022 (J2) 5 66 17 15 10 62 52 +10

*Note: Data for pre-2003 results is separated from more recent data to reflect the switch in the J.League's format, to eliminate "Golden Goal" overtime.