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Local Communities Back New Soccer Teams (February 4, 2005)

Members of Thespa Kusatsu celebrate their team's promotion to the J. League. (Jiji)
The J. League, Japan's professional soccer league, will expand to 30 clubs for its 2005 season, a three-fold increase from the 10 clubs that began the inaugural 1993 season. Unlike Japanese pro baseball, where many teams are named after their corporate sponsors, the J. League was created with the idea of having clubs represent their local communities while eschewing overt displays of corporate sponsorship. This approach has taken root, and new clubs with hopes of breaking into the J. League are now blossoming in a number of communities.

Small Towns, Big Dreams
From 2005 there will be 18 teams in J. League Division One (J1) and 12 in Division Two (J2). Two new clubs will make their J. League debut this year, both joining J2. Thespa Kusatsu will represent Kusatsu, a town in Gunma Prefecture that has a population of 7,800 and is famous for its hot springs. And Tokushima Vortis, based in the city of Naruto, Tokushima Prefecture, will enter the J. League as the first club ever from the island of Shikoku.

Thespa Kusatsu's team name is derived from the word spa (hot spring). The club was established in 2002 with an eye toward breaking into the J. League and includes many players with J. League experience, including former Japan national team goalkeeper Kojima Nobuyuki. Many of the players compete while holding down jobs at the local hot spring resorts - a far cry from the treatment enjoyed by top professional athletes. The club made the jump from the semi-professional Japan Football League (JFL) to J2 in a record span of just three years, its players perhaps motivated by memories of having once been cut from J. League clubs. In keeping with the spirit of a spa town, upon earning promotion the players and local fans celebrated by spraying one another with hot spring water rather than champagne.

The club representing Tokushima, an area famous for the tidal whirlpools of the Naruto Straits, has its roots in Otsuka Football Club of the JFL. Ten years ago, 240,000 of Tokushima Prefecture's 800,000 residents signed a petition in support of establishing a J. League club in their area. The initiative was abandoned for a time, but recently the local government injected new life into it by providing capital for the new team. The club earned entry into J2 by winning the JFL championship.

Other Local Clubs Waiting in the Wings
Inspired by the success of these two clubs, there has been a surge in the number of localities that are trying to get their own clubs to make the leap to the J. League. In Kumamoto Prefecture, for example, a citizens' campaign has turned Alouette Kumamoto from an amateur team in the local league into a pro organization. The team will begin the 2005 season under the new moniker Rosso Kumamoto and aims to reach the J. League in 2007. In Fukushima Prefecture, meanwhile, a citizens' group collected ¥500 ($5 at ¥100 to the dollar) donations and used the money to launch the Fukushima Junkers in 2004. And many other clubs, including FC Ryukyu from Okinawa Prefecture, are springing up throughout Japan with the hope of one day making it to the J. League.

The reasons for this new wave of soccer clubs include the increased interest in soccer triggered by Japan's co-hosting of the 2002 FIFA World Cup, relatively low annual running costs of ¥1 billion ($10 million) (much lower than the cost of running a baseball team), and the contribution of the clubs to revitalizing communities. The J. League's 100-Year Vision foresees teams representing their localities in other sports as well as soccer, as happens in some European countries. If the current trend for community-based teams continues, it may not be too far-fetched to envision a future in which 100 clubs compete throughout Japan.

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Copyright (c) 2005 Web Japan. Edited by Japan Echo Inc. based on domestic Japanese news sources. Articles presented here are offered for reference purposes and do not necessarily represent the policy or views of the Japanese Government.

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