Saturday, 23 October 2021

 

ThespaKusatsu Gunma is a relatively new team which was established, in part, as a way to bring publicity to the Kusatsu Hot Springs Resort, in northren Tochigi prefecture. The team burst onto the scene in 2002 and 2003 when, just a few years after its founding (in 1997), the team made up its mind to seek a place in the J2, and started taking steps to win promotion to the J.League.

The team name, Thespa, is pronounced like some sort of ersatz Italian pasta dish (" ZA-spa "), but its origin comes from the hot springs resort area that serves as its home town: ("The Spa" . . . Get it?). Though no more ridiculous than some of the other team names that have been created in Japan's footballing community, this one has a very unique "ring" to it, and has earned the team as much press coverage as their actual performances.

The team got a huge boost when two former Kashima Antlers players -- Ryosuke Okuno and Carlo Alberto de Sousa Santos -- joined former national team goalkeeper Nobuyuki Kojima as team coaches and players. Though all were well past their prime (Santos was a spry 43), their skills and experience were enough to help the team win promotion to the JFL for the start of the 2004 season. Several younger J.League players, tired of riding the bench at their existing clubs, signed aboard despite the fact that they had to take part-time work on the side (JFL teams are amateur, in name at least. Player usually get a share of the bonus money paid based on their ranking in the JFL final standings, but most need to work at least part time to make ends meet).

In 2005, the silver-haired Kojima and his gang of part-time hotel workers at the tiny hot-springs resort fought to a third place finish in the JFL, qualifying for promotion to the J2 in 2005. To top off a magnificent season, the team put on a show in the Emperor's Cup tournament that wrote a cinderella story of epic proportions. After an astonishing upset of J1 stragglers Oita Trinita, Thespa were paired with the League Champion Yokohama Marinos in what everyone assumed would be a proud but futile final stand. But against all the odds, Thespa held the Marinos to a 1-1 draw in regular time -- despite being reduced to nine men -- and in the first period of golden goal extra time, scored an earth-shattering goal that tossed the reigning J.League champs out of the tournament.

Unfortunately, upsets like this one do not happen on a regular basis, and despite their Cinderella run in 2004, the team found it difficult to turn the initial fan interest into a substantial cash flow from match tickets. Furthermore, many of the veteran players who contributed to the team's bid for J.League entry were too old to continue contributing at the J2 level, and Thespa has not been able to attract too many quality youngsters. Their performances in 2005 and 2006 were nearly as pusillanimous as the results recorded by Ventforet Kofu in its first few years in the league. Of course, the example of Ventforet shows that even a weak team can turn itself around if it can attract local fan support and develop a strong team spirit. But Thespa have not been able to do that.

Over the next decade, Thespa developed a good spirit of rivalry with two other clubs from the northern Kanto area - Mito Hollyhock and Tochigi SC. Unfortunately, these three clubs and their pursuit (if it could be called that) of an ersatz title "North Kanto Derby-Winner" (based on whoever claims the most points from head-to-head matches among Thespa, Tochigi and Hollyhock) eventually collapsed, for obvious reasons. Within a few years, the title simply proved which of the three clubs was least bad. Hollyhock are the oldest team in this amalgamation, and not surprisingly the most stable. Tochigi followed a trajectory of boom and bust -- soaring almost to the door of J1 promotion soon after joining the league, then relegated to Division 3.

Thespa followed a similar trajectory, though some changes in the early 20'teens halted the erosion for a while. In 2014 they added the name of Gunma prefecture to their moniker, becoming "Thespakusatsu Gunma" (a term that many long-time fans still pointedly ignore). While not exactly a source of fan enthusiasm, this did help attract some corporate sponsorship from a wider range of Gunma-based companies. But after five consecutive seasons of doing just barely enough to stave off relegation, Thespa finally tumbled down the final step, finishing dead last in 2017.

Thespakusatsu needed two years in J3 to reorganize and make their way back into the second division. In 2020, the only thing that really saved them from relegation was the Covid pandemic, which led the league to forego relegation in 2020. If Tochigi and Thespakusatsu want to achieve the same level of -- well, maybe not "success" but at least stability -- they have a lot of grassroots work to pursue. In particular, Thespa needs to build a better youth organization and find ways to secure reasonably talented personnel. For now, fans of the Spa will probably be content to just linger in the lukewarm waters of midtable J2 existence. There is a Japanese proverb about onsens, though, which observes that if you lack motivation, it is easy to soak in a lukewarm tub until it gets cold. 


Team Results for 2005-Present

Year Rank Pts W D L GF GA G.Dif
2005 12 23 5 8 31 26 82 -56
2006 12 42 9 15 24 54 86 -32
2007 11 42 7 21 20 42 71 -29
2008 9 53 13 14 15 45 52 -7
2009 10 65 18 11 22 64 76 -12
2010 12 48 14 6 16 36 48 -12
2011 9 57 16 9 13 51 51 +0
2012 17 47 12 11 19 31 45 -14
2013 20 40 9 13 20 43 61 -18
2014 18 49 14 7 21 45 54 -9
2015 18 48 13 9 20 34 56 -22
2016 17 45 11 12 19 52 66 -14
2017 22 20 5 5 32 32 88 -56
2018 (J3) 5 52 15 7 10 37 35 +2
2019 (J3) 2 63 18 9 7 59 34 +25
2020 (J2) 20 49 15 4 23 40 62 -22