Sunday, 16 June 2024

FC Ryukyu is a relative newcomer to the world of Japanese football, having been established in February 2003. Since its inception, the team has been a wildly popular and extremely successful club, starting off in the third division of the Okinawa Prefectural League in 2003 and advancing one level every year -- to the second division in 2004, to the Kyushu Regional League in 2005 and winning promotion to the JFL in 2006. There can be few Japanese clubs who have packed as much action into their short history as FC Ryukyu.

The squad can in some ways be considered the second incarnation of Okinawa's dream of having a club in the J.League. At the end of the 1990s, it breeifly looked as if Okinawa had a likely candidate for promotion, in Kariyushi FC. The club made headlines by asking former national team player and naturalised Brazilian-Japanese celebrity Ruy Ramos to act as their head coach and player-manager. Headlines in the sports dailies talked up the idea of this Okinawa-based club advancing to the J.League, and for a while, it seemed like this might become a reality

But the dream was, in fact, just a dream. The 44 year old Ramos had drawn all he could from the fountain of youth, and he proved to be as ineffective as a manager as he now was on the pitch. After he eventally came to terms with reality, and left the club, Kariyushi went into a tailspin from which it never recovered. It was disbanded after failing to win promotion to the JFL in 2002, with players all going their separate ways at the end of the year. Regardless of whether Kariyushi FC was just an example of inept management, or the victim of hostile fate, the dream of sending a team from Okinawa to the J.League was far from extinguished.

After the dramatic dissapointment of their failure to make it into the JFL, many of the players from Okinawa Kariyushi were determined to give it another shot, and together with a number of unsuccessful J.Leaguers, they took part in the creation of FC Ryukyu, in early 2003. Later that same year, FC Ryukyu made their first venture into the sea of competition, in the Okinawa Prefectural League, Division 3 (North). The team proved to be fathoms above their opponents in quality, amassing a staggering ninety-two (92) goals in just nine games, and conceding only two in their dash to the title. The club's crest alone is worthy of a spot in a professional league, with its Okinawan lion-dogs, red eyes ablaze, and the boastful inscription "since 2003". As its motto, the team selected a delightful bit of ersatz-English, declaring proudly: "They Began To Run". . . .

During the off-season, 30,000 signatures were added to a local petition expressing support for the establishment of a J-League club in the area, and FC Ryukyu were fast-tracked by the Okinawa Football Association directly to the Prefectural League Division 1 -- the top division in Okinawa. Prior to the start of the 2004 campaign, FC Ryukyu appointed a new coach to oversee the next stage of the teamユs on-the-pitch development. The man selected for tjhe job was the local sports hero Jorge Yonashiro .

Born in Sao Paulo in 1950, Yonashiro originally came to Japan in 1972 to play for the Yomiuri Club (the forerunner of today's Tokyo Verdy). In 1985, Yonashiro became a naturalised Japanese citizen, which enabled him to appear for the Japan National Team in the qualifying competition for the 1986 World Cup, in Mexico. A key figure in Japanese football during the days of the JSL, Yonashiro entered the coaching ranks following his retirement as a player, working at both Nagoya Grampus and Kyoto Purple Sanga.

After accepting the position at FC Ryukyu, Yonashiro oversaw the signing of several vital new players such as Shinji Fujiyoshi -- a forward who had represented Japan at the Barcelona Olympics and had acquired extensive J-League experience with Verdy Kawasaki, Kyoto and Vegalta Sendai -ミ as well as ex-Albirex Niigata midfielder Ricardo Higa. Although they failed to maintain a perfect record, conceding a draw in one of their league matches, the club nevertheless cruised to the Okinawa Prefectural League championship and then swept aside all their three of their opponents in the playoffs for promotion to the Kyushu League, with a torrid aggregate score of 21-0.

Thus in 2005, just two years after its creation, the Okinawan club arrived at the Kyushu Regional League level, and immediately made a strong impression. Right from the start of the season there was little doubt in the minds of local fans that the Kyu-League title would be captured by either FC Ryukyu or their monied rivals Rosso Kumamoto. A 7-0 drubbing of their troubled neighbors, Kariyushi FC in round 2 had them charging out of the blocks, and apart from a 2-1 upset defeat at the hands of New Wave Kitakyushu, only Rosso caused Yonashiroユs men any serious difficulties. The team suffered consecutive 1-0 defeats home and away, conceding the championship to Kumamoto, and finishing in second position.

Nevertheless, their solid performance earned FC Ryukyu a place in the Annual Nationwide Regional League Championship Tournament, allowing the Okinawans to vie for promotion for the third time in as many years. With dominant contributions from Ricardo Higa, the team dismissed Luminozo Sayama and Sagawa Kyubin Chugoku in the First Round of the Tournament. Higa proved to be the hero in the opening match of the final round-robin, nicking a stoppage time goal on a free kick to earn a 1-1 draw against their nemisis Rosso Kumamoto, and then sensationally snatched the victory 5-4 on penalty kicks. The following day, a late own goal gave them a 1-0 win over JEF United Amateur, and FC Ryukyu's berth in the JFL was secure.

FC Ryukyu's ambitious original target was to earn membership in the J.League by 2007, but this timetable proved to be unrealistic. While Kumamoto had the depth and organizational base to pull off the feat, FC Ryukyu struggled with the higher level of competition in the JFL, and Yonashiro retired having completed only half of his objective.

Ryukyu's efforts to build the team received a huge public relations boost in early 2008 when, in the most unexpected of fashions, the club suddenly introduced their new "coach" to the press . . . an unassuming French chap by the name of Troussier. As it turned out, public relatons was about the only benefit that the club received during the first year of the relationship between Phil and the Happy Islanders. In the end, Troussier accepted a role as the team's Technical Director, rather than coach. Nevertheless, in typically Trousserian fashion the team has received thorough brushing-up. 2008 was declared "Troussier Kakumei Gan-nen" (Year Zero of the Troussier Revolution) and even such minor details as the club concept and "club vision" were scrutinized and adjusted to exacting standards of sharpness and focus. 

In terms of actual coaching, however, Troussier limited his contributions to occasional visits to "check up" on the team's progress, and periodic messages for the fans which were profuse in their expression of undying devotion and "amite". It was clear from these missives that the Frenchman had a keen memory for every player on the team, and a pretty good appreciation of what each player could do, but he seemed unwilling to commit to a full-time effort at club coaching. In the end, he parted ways with the club in 2011, to take over as coach of Shenzen, in China.  This decision clarified what most people had already suspected -- in order to devote himself to actual coachiing, Troussier wanted more money than Ryukyu FC could afford.

The departure of Troussier had an adverse impact on Ryukyu's prowess on the pitch, and they slipped down to 12th place in the subsequent season. But this time, the winds of fate were blowing in a positive direction, and Okinawa was about to be handed the prize they had struggled for, over such a long period of time. In 2013 the J.League announced that it would form a third division the following year, and any team that was able to meet the organizational and financial requirements could immediately joint, as a founding member. Okinawans' efforts to create a pro club had almost two decades of history behind them, so most of the organizational goals were easy to tick off.

The one shortcoming FC Ryukyu faced was the lack of a J.League-quality stadium, but public support was sufficient to convince the local government to pitch in. A new, 10,000-seat facility -- Okinawa Prefectural Sports Park --  was completed just in time to inaugurate the team as a J3 founding member, and the increased revenue stream (as well as weather and living conditions that make a move to FC Ryukyu attractive to many former J1 players) quickly allowed the team to climb the ladder. Ryukyu picked up some experience in the form of players like Ryuji Bando, Kazumasa Uesato and Yuichiro Edamoto, and by 2018 they had a unit that was able to win the league, and earn promotion to the J2.

Having made the jump to the second tier, FC Ryukyu appointed experienced gaffer Yasuhiro Higuchi as head coach and allowed the new coaching staff to thoroughly rebuild the club. A remarkable 23 new players were added, with most of the existing players released after their 2018 J3 title run. A 14th-place finish in 2019 represented another step up in competitiveness, but further advances proved to be difficult for a small-budget team.

The team managed to remain in J2 for four years, but were relegated again in the 2022 season. The question is whether they can recover and make another run at promotion, or whether Ryukyu has hit its ceiling. The 2023 season could tell us a lot about Ryukyu's longer-term prospects, but for the time being, the club will be happy just to fight their way back into the second division. 

Team Results:  2005-13

Year Rank Pts GP W D L GF GA G.Dif
2005 (Kyu Lg.) 2 19 40 12 1 4 51 12 +39
2006 (JFL) 15 28 32 6 10 16 29 51 -22
2007 (JFL) 17 27 34 7 6 21 38 82 -44
2008 (JFL) 16 27 34 7 6 21 31 58 -27
2009 16 38 34 11 5 18 42 57 -15
2010 10 48 34 14 6 14 51 51 0
2011 9 46 33 14 4 15 47 51 -4
2012 9 43 32 12 7 13 58 62 -4
2013 11 46 34 12 10 12 47 51 -4

Team Results:  2014-Present

Year Rank Pts W D L GF GA G.Dif
2014 (J3) 9 34 8 10 15 31 50 -19
2015 9 45 12 9 15 45 51 -6
2016 8 44 12 8 10 46 46 0
2017 6 50 13 11 8 44 36 +8
2018 1 66 20 6 6 70 40 +30
2019 (J2) 14 49 13 10 19 57 80 -23
2020 (J2) 16 50 14 8 20 58 61 -3
2021 (J2) 9 65 18 11 13 57 47 +10
2022 (J2) 21 37 8 13 21 41 65 -24