Friday, 04 December 2020

 


 

Otsuka Sports Club was founded in 1955, but remained in the lower regional divisions of the JSL until 1988. The team was promoted to the JSL first division in 1989, and after the creation of the J.League and JFL in 1993, remained in the middle of the rankings of the JFL. Otsuka FC provides yet another example of how, in the world of Japanese football, grassroots support USUALLY manages to overcome corporate bureaucratic tomfoolery. This is one of the characteristics that makes Japan's football culture slightly different from the money-driven leagues of Europe.

In 1994, in response to the JFA's request to try to give teams a "local character" rather than one linked to a corporation, the team changed its name to Vortis Tokushima. But in 1999, when the JFL was reorganised, the team officials inexplicably changed the name back to "Otsuka Pharmaceutical FC". This may reflect the fact that the company sponsor, Otsuka Pharmaceutical, felt that it could generate more publicity for itself by having the team named after the company. Though it seems to refute the principles of the Japan Football Association, which seeks to promote local grassroots support over company sponsorship, the team ignored the wishes of fans and started the season as "Otsuka Pharmaceutical".

But while the company had the "power" to force through such a change, it soon discovered that its power was only nominal. Otsuka Pharmaceutical was wholly unprepared to address the campaign of "nonviolent resistance" which the team's fans implemented.

Though they never displayed even the slightest hint of anger or controversy, fans continued to show up at the stadium each week with huge banners of support for "Vortis Tokushima". An internet search for "Vortis Tokushima" would turn up dozens of web sites whereas "Otsuka Pharmaceutical FC" provided practically none, since the official team site was the only one to use this name. The company soon realised that regardless of what THEY wanted to call the team, they were stuck with the name "Vortis Tokushima", like it or not.

Fortunately, the corporate sponsor eventually realised which side of the bread had butter on it. By the start of the 2001 season, the team began selling official goods which used the name "Vortis Tokushima" in small letters, in addition to the "Otsuka FC" logomark -- a prime example of how the direction of football culture in Japan is being determined by the fans, and not by corporate clods in the head office.

In 2004, Vortis claimed the JFL championship, meeting the last of the requirements for J2 entry. In 2005, a new era dawned for football in Japan's outlying regions, as Tokushiuma Vortis joined the J.League as the first team from the island of Shikoku. With their application for J2 entry, the name Otsuka FC finally died an unlamented death. In accord with the J.League's rules against the use of corporate names, the team petitioned for entry as "Tokushima Vortis". Apparently, the back-office apparatchiks must have felt that reversing the order of the name would demonstrate that they still had SOME power. But in the end, it was the grassroots fan base that has triumphed.

Vortis captured the enthusiasm of the entire Shikoku region, spurring their neighbours in Ehime prefecture to vie for, and ultimately win promotion to the J.League in 2005. Though Vortis will probably have to struggle for a few years before they have the financial base and player talent to move up the J2 ranks, their entry to the league was a historic event, making the J.League the first TRULY nationwide organisation in Japanese sports history .

The first season in the J1 was naturally a difficult one for Vortis, but they surprised many sceptics with their determination and quality of play. The team rose as high as fourth place, at one point, before slipping down the table later in the season to finish ninth. In 2006, the team was forced to rebuild, as the players who took the team into the J.League began to hit the ceiling of their abilities, and made way for younger replace,ments. As a result, despite the encouragement of a local rivalry with Ehime FC, Tokushima drifted down-table, and they followed it up with a last-place finish in 2007 and 2008.

Begnning in 2009, however, the Tidal Whirlpool began to spin in a positive direction. According to management, the first objective for Tokushima Vortis was to establish themselves as a solid and competitive team with healthy finances. One can only commend the team for its foresight, since many rivals have attempted to make a quick advance, only to discover that they didnt have the funds to sustain it. In the lower reaches of the J2, strong fan support, good ticket revenues and a balanced budget are the critical factors, and if a team deals with them, success on the pitch will eventually follow.

Under the leadership of Naohiko Minobe, a former Kyoto Sanga coach, Tokushima collected a large number of talented and experienced players from the benches of J1 teams - particularly Minobe's former team and the two Osaka clubs.  Vortis put together a very strong run in the first half of 2010, and at one time was nipping at the heels of the promotion candidates. The team eventually ran out of steam and finished in eighth place, but the momentum was contagious. The following year Vortis climbed all the way to fourth place, finishing just short of promotion. The enthusiasm of fans throughout Shikoku rose a notch, not only bolstering Vortis but also spilling over to teams still pursuing a J.League berth, such as Kamatamare Sanuki.

As so often happens with J2 clubs that outperform expectations, there was a sudden loss of talent over the 2011-12 winter break, as the very best players were snapped up by J1 teams. This caused Vortis to slip downtable in the 2012 season, but under the guidance of Shinji Kobayashi -- a veteran gaffer who had already taken Oita Trinita, Cerezo Osaka and Montedio Yamagata into the J1 -- the team rebounded quickly. In 2013 they again finished fourth, but this time the promotion playoff system gave them another chance to make the jump. A veteran defensive unit featuring the likes of Mitsuru Chiyotanda, Yohei Fukumoto, Jun Aoyama, Takeshi Hamada and Alex de Melo Santos stymied both JEF United and Kyoto Sanga, both of which had twice the history and experience of the Shikoku upstarts. Vortis became the first member of the J.League's "Third Wave" of expansion (teams that joined the J2 after 2002) to earn a spot in the top-flight division.

This visit did not last long, and hardly anyone was surprised to see the team swirl down the vortex to J2 at the end of 2014. It was clear on opening day -- in a 0-5 loss to Sagan Tosu -- that Vortis were "slightly" out of their depth in the J1. That did not discourage fans of the Whirlpools for long. They made their mark as the "newest" team ever to reach J1, and the strong grassroots support that developed during their top-flight experience improved finances enough to hang on to their more talented young players.

More importantly, perhaps, Tokushima's brief stint in the J1 allowed the team to establish itself as . . . to put it a bit cynically . . . the biggest bandwagon in Shikoku. The team's rivals in the region -- Ehime FC, Kamatamare Sanuki, and 2020 newcomers Imabari FC -- have neither the talent nor the finances to compete with Vortis anymore, and will need to make major changes if they hope to ever do so. The result is that Vortis now attracts fans from far afield, not only throughout Shikoku, but even from parts of Honshu that have good access to Takamatsu via the many massive suspension bridges which are local tourist attractions in their own right. Even after five straight years of second-tier mediocrity, attendances remain above 5,000, and a fourth-place finish in 2019 shows that promotion is once again within reach.

Vortis seems to have a bright future in front of them, and perhaps they can eventually even go toe-to-toe with other Kansai-area powers like Cerezo, Gamba and Vissel. For now, however, the building process must start over as many key players departed following the demotion. Another J1 journey is probably a year or two off, but as they say in Eastern Shikoku: when you see the Whirlpools forming, you know that the tide is going to turn once again.


Team Results for 2005-Present

Year Rank Pts W D L GF GA G.Dif
2005 9 52 12 16 16 60 76 -16
2006 13 35 8 11 29 43 92 -49
2007 13 33 6 15 27 31 67 -36
2008 15 29 7 8 27 40 72 -32
2009 9 72 19 15 17 67 52 +15
2010 8 51 15 6 15 51 47 +4
2011 4 65 19 8 11 51 38 +13
2012 15 51 13 12 17 45 49 -4
2013 4 67 20 7 15 56 51 +5
2014 (J1)  18 14 3 5 26 16 74 -58
2015  14 53 13 14 15 35 44 -9
2016  9 57 16 9 17 46 42 +4
2017 7 67 18 13 11 71 45 +26
2018 11 56 16 8 18 48 42 +6
2019 4 73 21 10 11 67 45 +22