Wednesday, 02 December 2020

Vegalta Sendai was originally formed in 1988, as the soccer club of Tohoku Electric Power Company, and it was a top team in the old Tohoku regional league during the JSL days. In 1994, the team entered the JFL under the name "Brummel Sendai". The name was changed to "Vegalta" in 1997. It is located in Sendai, which is about three hours north of Tokyo by train and one of the largest cities in northern Japan. Sendai boasts a strong local football base, and has one of the nicest football-only stadiums in Japan. Though not particularly large, its soaring semi-transparent roof and high twin decks have earned it comparison to Ajax Amsterdam's "Amsterdam Arena". For matches that are expected to draw larger crowds, the team can also fall back on Miyagi Prefectural Stadium, about 50 minutes from town, which was one of the host sites for the 2002 World Cup.

Vegalta Sendai takes its name from the twin stars Vega and Altair. The two stars feature in a popular local legend about two "star-crossed" lovers, and the "Tanabata Festiva" is heldl to commemorate the date when the two stars reach their apex, in midsummer In addition to its strong local grassroots base, the team also enjoys a fierce local rivalry with Montedio Yamagata, located on the opposite side of Tohoku's central mountain range.

Vegalta's performance in the J2 during the first two seasons was as steadily mediocre as its results in the JFL. The team has finished in the middle of the table both times, and though its attendances were excellent, the team did not do a particularly good job of translating the gate receipts into a competitive roster. However, in 2001 Hidehiko Shimizu, a veteran campaigner in who was a member of Japan's bronze medal team in 1964 and formerly coached at Vissel Kobe and Kyoto Purple Sanga, took over as Vegalta's head coach and used the money in the team's coffers to bring in a number of journeymen J-Leaguers who had paid their dues in the J1 but never had a real taste of glory themselves. Players such as former Verdy midfielders Takahiro Yamada and Teruo Iwamoto, 1996 Olympic team member Nobuyuki Zaizen, and former Antlers defender Ricardo Riberiro. This core of experienced journeymen, buttressed by the dazzling offensive skills of Brazilian striker Marcos Souza Ribeiro, helped the team claim promotion to the J1 division in 2002.

Vegalta's truly fanatical fan base provided the team with excellent crowd support, packing the 19,500 capacity Sendai Stadium for every home game. This surge of enthusiasm, as well as the element of surprise, allowed Vegalta to go undefeated in the first 7 matches of the 2002 season. But thereafter the team's performance dropped off, and they finished towards the lower end of the table. Yet most observers viewed their performance as relatively successful for a team taking part in the J1 for the first time, and few expected the sort of disaster that struck Vegalta in 2003.

The team started the 2003 season with a run of poor results, and Vegalta's management -- never known for their intellectual or strategic prowess -- suddenly panicked. They tossed out coach Hidehiko Shimizu, who was arguably the brains behind the team's previous success, but who had a reputation for being "too soft" on players. In his place, they brought in disciplinarian Zdenko Verdenik, who had finished a halfway decent stint at JEF United but whose harsh treatment of players at Nagoya Grampus earned him the ire of many in the club and brought a quick dismissal after just nine months at the helm. The shock of this transition was too great, and only deepened the team's downward spiral, sending them back to the J2. To make matters worse, Vegalta's front office was easily swayed by Verdenik's argument that the team was "spoiled and lazy", and that even stricter discipline would eventually whip them into shape.

Vegalta's dreadful results in 2004 simply proved that the poor finish in 2003 was no fluke, and that Verdenik's highly conservative strategies are not well suited to the J.League. The Verdenik philosophy was described by one former player as folows: "Why move forward on attack, and take the chance of losing 0-1, when you can play for the scoreless draw". After finishing a disappointing sixth in 2004, the team bid farewell to Verdenik and set out to restructure.

Though the poor management decisions made by Vegalta's front office over the years have set the team back considerably, the one thing that Sendai always can count on is a strong flow of cash, thanks to their truly fanatical fan base. Once the team put its house in order, they quickly began to attract the sort of talent that is needed to make another run at J1 promotion. It took some time for the team to recover from the poor decisions made in 2003 and 2004, but after picking up several quality journeymen, and ridding themselves of aging players, they extablished themselves as one of the stronger J2 clubs and a perennial candidate for one of the promotion sports.

But despite their relatively strong finances, ardent fan support and a number of players with J1 experience, Vegalta's association with the legendary star-crossed lovers seems to have carried over to their fortunes as a football team. Somehow the stars seem to be against them, since the team has narrowly missed out on promotion for each of the past four seasons. Each year they start anew, approaching the season opener each March with hopes high that THIS will finally be the year. But somehow the Golden Eagles cant quite make it over the hill. After missing out on the promotion-relegation slot by less than three points in 2005, 2006 and 2007, they finally managed to book a spot in the playoff in 2008. But after a hard-fought 1-1 draw in Sendai, Vegalta dropped a 2-1 decision to Jubilo Iwata in the away leg, and were forced to go back to the starting line in 2009 to try their luck once more.

Given their incredibly bad luck in recent years, fans could be forgiven for starting to get a bit impatient. But throughout Vegalta's long sojourn in the lower division, the fans remained spectacularly loyal, filling Sendai Stadium week after week, and even forcing the city to consider stadium expansion at some point in the near future. This loyalty was at last rewarded in 2009, when all the pieces finally fell together and the Eagles soared through a full season without any major mishaps. Though the team lacked any truly recognizable stars -- the most influential player was the Japan-born North Korean Ryan Yong-gi -- Vegalta finally put together a solid and consistent team concept, which carried them to the J2 title in 2009, and all the way to the semifinal of the Emperor's Cup.

In 2010 Vegalta rejoined the top-flight for the first time since 2004. The Eagles did not have a very deep or high-profile roster, apart from team captain Ryan Yong-Gi, but they did have some excellent fan support, and a very clever coach in Makoto Teguramori.  This combination allowed Sendai to rise above their individual limitations and claim enough points to maintain their spot in the J1. However, after negotiating a difficult path to success in 2010, Vegalta opted to sign a lot of aging "cast-offs" like Marquinhos and Atsushi Yanagisawa to pad out their roster in 2011. These additions seem aimed less at boosting the team's performances on the pitch, and more an attempt to win publicity and advertising revenues.

The influence of veteran acquisitions may have contributed to the team's improved performance in 2011, but the most important factor in Vegalta's subsequent history -- and that of the entire region -- was the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami, which struck the northeastern coast of Japan on March 11, 2011. The death and devastation that followed cannot be adequately described in words, and even stark statistics like 200,000 dead, billions of dollars in property damage and over 5 million left homeless can only hint at the trials that people in the Tohoku region endured over the subsequent months and years. Sendai Stadium itself was shaken to the foundations, and would not reopen for another six months. The entire J.League season was put on hold, only resuming towards the end of April. 

From the moment the ground stopped shaking, Vegalta players and staff were at the leading edge of recovery efforts. Though the entire J.League pitched in with fundraising, relief supplies and a tremendous expression of support and goodwill, it was Vegalta (and to a slightly lesser extent, Kashima Antlers) that bore the brunt of the quake, and provided the symbolic leadership for rebuilding. Their selfless and enthusiastic response to the disaster somehow spilled over into their performance on the pitch, as well. The team's soft-spoken and tremendously popular coach, Makoto Teguramori, spurred his players on to heroic efforts, and Vegalta  shot to the top of the table. Though the momentum faded down the stretch, and the Golden Eagles ended up finishing fourth, the earthquake and tsunami had transformed a little-known football team into a nationally admired symbol of resilience and determination. 

Though Vegalta already had a large and loyal fan base, the events of 2011 and beyond swelled the numbers further, and allowed Sendai to develop a strong revenue stream. Though there have been ups and downs, the team has remained a permanent fixture of the J1 ever since. But after Teguramori had established the team foundation, their momentum seemed to stall. Most of the players brought in by coach Teguramori were veterans with a tough, physical style of play that made them tough to beat, but was not adventurous enough to win any titles. Most of these blue-collar veterans were already in their 30s, and it was apparent that Vegalta needed some changes if they hoped to remain in the upper end of the J1. At the end of 2013, Teguramori decided that he had taken the team as far as he could, and stepped down to accept a position with the Japan National Team.

Vegalta's choice of a replacement was nothing short of disastrous. Though Australian Graham Arnold had established a good reputation in the A-League, he had virtually no knowledge of the Japanese game. To make matters worse, he had a very brash (some would say "arrogant") personality and a very inaccurate understanding of the team he was joining. Even before the 2014 campaign kicked off he had alienated players and front-office staff alike, insisting on the acquisition of several hand-pocked Australian players, and making demands for further roster improvements which seemed completely at odds with Vegalta's budget. The problems were certainly exacerbated by cultural factors, and even Arnold's fiercest critics would have to admit that some of the criticisms he levelled at club and players were legitimate. However, the coach seemed oblivious to the norms of behaviour in Japan, and unwilling to compromise his own lofty ambitions.

The only positive thing that one could say about Arnold's brief stint in Japan was that both sides were quick to admit their mistake, and break off the relationship before it caused worse damage. Arnold departed after just six games, having earned just one point from the 18 on offer. 

Arnold was replaced by his second-in command, Susumu Watanabe, who had no prior experience as a head coach but had a long history with the Vegalta organization. He may not have had Arnold's pedigree or tactical nous, but he was a good choice to paper over the divisions that Arnold had created, and inspire some of the veterans to step forward and prevent a fatal downward spiral. Though he deserves credit for stabilizing Vegalta, in 2014, the team's struggles in 2015 suggest that changes will be needed if the Golden Eagles are to remain in the top flight. The problem is that Vegalta's youth programme is small, and generates few top-quality prospects. For the team is to rebuild, they must use the same opportunistic trading tactics that Teguramori used to attract aging veterans, or hard-working journeymen.

Considering how much Arnold and Co. complained about Watanabe, who initially was just the go-between for Arnold and Vegalta management, the former Sendai centre-back proved to be an adept student of Teguramori's old techniques. Over the next six seasons the Golden Eagles struggled along at around midtable, not deep enough to challenge for silverware, but always hard-working enough to give any opponent trouble on a given afternoon.

As Watanabe begins his seventh year at the helm, however, the fan base is beginning to dream of past glories, and hoping to once again vie for silverware. The budget is the main barrier for now, but for the first time in several seasons Vegalta has a few home-grown youngsters working their way into the lineup. The most likely outcome in 2020 is another mid-table battle, but if the Golden Eagles can keep players like Koji Hachisuka, Keiya Shiihashi and Ryo Germain in the nest for a few more seasons, perhaps they can improve on the 10th-12th place neighborhood where they have remained since the departure of Teguramori. 


Vegalta Sendai -- Historical Results

Year Rank Win D L GF GA G.Dif
90 ET
1999 (J2) 9 7 3 4 22 30 58 -28
2000 (J2) 5 15 4 2 19 60 69 -9
2001 (J2) 2 24 3 5 12 78 56 +22
2002 (1st) 9 6 1 0 8 23 27 -4
2002 (2nd) 15 3 1 1 10 17 30 -13
2003 (1st) 15 3   3 9 17 28 -11
2003 (2nd) 15 2   6 7 14 28 -14

Team Results for 2004-Present

Year Rank Pts W D L GF GA G.Dif
2004 (J2) 59 15 14 15 62 66 -4
2005  " 4 68 19 11 14 66 47 +19
2006  " 5 77 21 14 13 75 43 32
2007  " 4 83 24 11 13 72 54 18
2008  " 3 70 18 16 8 62 47 +15
2009  " 1 106 32 10 9 87 39 +48
2010 (J1) 14 39 10 9 15 40 46 -6
2011  4 56 14 14 6 39 25 +14
2012 2 57 15 12 7 59 43 +16
2013 13 45 11 12 11 41 38 +3
2014 14 38 11 14 35 50 -15
2015 (1st) 7 23 6 5 6 27 20 +7
2015 (2nd) 16 12 3 3 11 17 28 -11
2016 (1st) 10 23 7 2 8 20 25 -5
2016 (2nd) 12 20 6 2 9 19 23 -4
2017 12 41 11 8 15 44 53 -9
2018 11 45 13 6 15 44 54 -10
2019 11 41 12 5 17 38 45 -7

*Note: Data for pre-2004 results is separated from more recent data to reflect the switch in the format, to eliminate "Golden Goal" overtime