Once again, it’s that time of the year when the small fish in big lakes return to their home ponds to take on the even smaller fish who dream of causing an upset and qualifying for the Emperor’s Cup at their expense as the majority of Japan’s 47 prefectural championships come to a grand conclusion this weekend. Some teams have battled hard since the Spring for this opportunity while others, lucky enough to have a bye straight to the final, are playing their first match of their respective tournaments.
The final 32 places in the first round of the 2015 Emperor’s Cup are up for grabs this weekend with teams from all sorts of different levels and backgrounds taking part. As usual, I’ll be focusing on the J3 clubs and those in a position to join J3 in the near future as I preview the relevant matches.
Who has already qualified?
Due to the nature of the qualifying process, several teams have already booked their place in the first round of the cup. The first club to qualify was Vanraure Hachinohe in early June as a result of winning the first stage of the JFL, which gave them a special free ticket into the cup without the need of going through their local qualifiers. They will face either Sony Sendai or Sendai University next week.
Kagoshima United joined Hachinohe towards the end of June as a result of a 2-1 win over the National Institute of Fitness and Sports in Kanoya, which saw them win the Kagoshima Soccer Championship. They already know that their opponents in the first round will be Matsue City.
FC Ryukyu recently became the first J3 club to qualify having been crowned as champions of the Okinawa Soccer Championship for the sixth year in a row after recording a 4-1 win over Kaiho Bank SC. Ryukyu could face fellow J3 opposition next week as they are set to face either Kataller Toyama or Toyama Shinjo Club.
Who is already eliminated?
Unfortunately, some of our friends have already suffered the fate of failing to qualify for the big event. Azul Claro Numazu always faced a big challenge to claim their place in the cup due to coming from one of the most competitive prefectures. Most clubs at their level are the big fish in their local pond but poor old Numazu entered the Shizuoka Soccer Championship as third favourites behind fellow JFL club and giants of the level Honda FC and Fujieda MYFC of J3. They scraped through their quarter final match on penalties but were no match for Honda in the semi final and exited the cup following a 3-1 defeat.
Kanagawa is also always a tough prefecture to call given that it contains not one but two J3 clubs in SC Sagamihara and YSCC. The final of the Kanagawa Football Championship takes place on Saturday but, remarkably, neither club will feature in the event as both fell at the semi final stage to university opposition earlier this week. YSCC were beaten 2-1 in the first semi final by Toin University of Yokohama, ending their defence of the title, before SC Sagamihara were humbled by the same scoreline later that evening against Senshu University.
Still to come…
The remaining twelve J3 and 100 Year Plan clubs will feature in prefectural finals up and down the country this weekend, each facing opposition from varying levels of the Japanese football pyramid. Some of the names will be familiar to all while others may be familiar to only the most avid followers of the lower league scene.
The only match of interest to me on Saturday sees a clash of the two heavyweights of Tochigi prefecture. These two sides have shared the last six titles between them and have both featured in the final for five years in a row. Tochigi have the historical upper hand with four wins to one and have been crowned as champions in each of the last two years. Takahara Nasu, currently 7th in the Kanto Soccer League, have failed to score in either of those two matches so they will go into this match as huge underdogs.
I doubt you could get odds on prefectural cups in Japan but even if you could then betting on Morioka here would be akin to printing money. Iwate may hold the prefecture name but they certainly don’t hold the bragging rights, having previously lost to Morioka twice in the Iwate Soccer Championship final. They aren’t alone, however, as Morioka have won the final in each of their eight appearances with the last seven coming in a row stretching back to 2008. This is a repeat of last year’s final, which saw Morioka run out as comfortable 3-0 winners. The chances of Iwate, currently 2nd in the Tohoku Soccer League, winning are exceedingly slim.
The Akita Soccer Championship final is also a repeat of the previous season as Akita again face TDK. Akita’s stranglehold on this tournament is even more impressive than that of Morioka in Iwate as they have won it every time they entered since forming in 2010 while the club that they formed from, TDK Soccer Club, had won it in all but one (2001) of the twelve previous years dating back to 1998. TDK currently reside in the 2nd tier of the Tohoku Soccer League where they sit atop the northern division so it’s highly likely that Akita will be taking home the trophy yet again this year.
The last of the Tohoku finals that I’ll be focusing on features a very familiar story. Fukushima United have won the Fukushima Soccer Tournament in each of the last seven years, which dates back to when they began to emerge as one of the regions big fish with their promotion to the top flight of the Tohoku Soccer League in 2008. Their opponents this year are also the very same club that they faced in the final last year, Primeiro. That match ended 4-0 so Primeiro, currently 5th in the Tohoku Soccer League, have got a lot to do if they hope to cause an upset.
We leave Tohoku and return to Kanto for an interesting matchup between Gunma’s biggest regional club, Maebashi, and a surprise face on the scene in Gunma Teachers Soccer Club. Gunma have navigated their way through four rounds to reach this point, defeating Maebashi’s reserve side on the way, which is a remarkable feat given that they currently sit 6th in the Gunma Soccer League – two levels below Maebashi. You can be forgiven for expecting this to be another one-sided affair but that may not be the case as Maebashi have been known to struggle in this competition having appeared in all but one of the last eight finals yet only winning twice. Most of these failures can be put down to playing second fiddle to the now-defunct former JFL side Arte Takasaki but two years ago they lost to Thespakusatsu Gunma’s reserves and then last year had the embarrassment of losing to their own reserve side. This one may not be so cut and dry.
Machida’s tale is one of hardship and disappointment. They have only won the Tokyo Soccer Tournament on one occasion (in 2011) and have failed to qualify for the Emperor’s Cup in each of the last two years since their short spell in J2, not even qualifying for the final in either. This year they scraped through by the skin of their teeth with a win over Toyo University on penalties in the semi final. Their opponents, the prestigious Waseda University, are a side with a storied history in the Emperor’s Cup; the university, which counts Japanese football legend Kunishige Kamamoto amongst its many notable alumni, has won the cup on four occasions and is the only non-league side to win it since league football was introduced in the 1960s. The 2015 team probably isn’t going to emulate that feat but their position of 4th in the top flight of Kanto university football suggests that they will be an even tougher opponent for Machida given that Toyo are currently 4th in the second division. Machida fans might want to prepare for the worst.
Nagano are returning to the Nagano Soccer Championship this season after being able to avoid the hassle last season due to qualifying for the Emperor’s Cup through their great performance in 2013. They will be facing the reigning champions in Ueda, currently 5th in Hokushinetsu Football League, who won the tournament in their absence last year. Nagano had won the previous two tournaments, including a 5-0 win over Ueda in 2013, following the departure of their long-term nemesis Matsumoto Yamaga who had beaten them in four straight finals between 2008 and 2011. The likelihood of Ueda defending their title is not very high but Nagano are in a bit of a crisis at the moment so you never know.
Kataller Toyama’s relegation last season ended their six year spell in J2 and with it the luxury of an automatic place in the cup and so, as with Tottori last year, they now face the return to a prefectural cup that they thought they had long since left behind. They have only played in the Toyama Soccer Championship on one previous occasion – 2008, the year they formed from a merger of two other clubs and also the year they were promoted to J2 – but they did manage to win it and will be hoping to add title number two this weekend. Their opponents are Toyama’s second club, the Shinjo Club, who are currently 4th in the Hokushinetsu Football League. They will be looking to claim a sixth consecutive title having profited greatly from Kataller’s absence but this one may just be a step too far for them.
Fujieda have arguably the toughest test of the weekend ahead of them as they face Honda of the JFL. The two sides have met in the final in the two previous seasons with Fujieda coming out on top both times – their only successes in the competition so far following three successive final defeats – including last year’s shock 7-2 thumping. Honda, currently 3rd in the JFL second stage, will surely be out for revenge this weekend but Fujieda should be confident of a third title given their recent league form. Either way, this will surely be one of the matches to look out for.
Much like the majority of Tohoku, Nara prefecture tends to be a one-club area. Nara Club have claimed the Nara Soccer Championship title in each of the last six years and there is little to suggest that they won’t make it seven this weekend. Their opposition is Tenri University, who currently sit 5th in Block A of the 2nd division of Kansai’s university league and whose most notable footballing alumni is probably former Gamba Osaka goalkeeper Naoki Matsuyo – a man who won everything there is to win in the domestic game. Tenri did take Nara to extra time in the semi finals last season but the JFL side’s superior level shone through in the end and I’d expect the same to happen this year.
Gainare Tottori made a triumphant return to the Tottori Soccer Championship last year with victory over four-time reigning champions Yonago Kita High School. This time out they face Tottori Dreams, currently top of the Tottori Soccer League, which is a club that formed as an off-shoot when Gainare was formed from Tottori SC. As such, the two clubs have a close bond but that will surely go out of the window and the Dreams players would probably love nothing more than to upstage their J3 cousins. The likelihood of that happening is not very high, however, and Gainare are huge favourites for another title.
Last but by no means least, we arrive all the way down in Yamaguchi prefecture for an interesting tie. Renofa are by far the biggest club side in their prefecture but the existence of Tokuyama has been a bit of a thorn in their side in recent years. The two sides have shared the title on nine of the last ten occasions with Renofa claiming five and Tokuyama claiming four, including the most recent title having defeated Renofa 2-1 after extra time. Neither side has defended the title since Renofa in 2011 so everything suggests that they will reclaim their local pride this year but Tokuyama, currently 3rd in Chugoku’s university league, will surely put up a fight.
Tochigi Uva vs Vertfee Takahara Nasu (12:00)
Grulla Morioka vs Ganju Iwate (13:05)
Blaublitz Akita vs TDK Shinwakai (13:05)
Fukushima United vs Primeiro Fukushima (13:04)
Tonan Maebashi vs Gunma Teachers (13:00)
Machida Zelvia vs Waseda University (18:00)
Nagano Parceiro vs Ueda Gentian (13:03)
Kataller Toyama vs Toyama Shinjo Club (13:03)
Fujieda MYFC vs Honda (14:05)
Nara Club vs Tenri University (13:00)
Gainare Tottori vs Tottori Dreams (15:00)
Renofa Yamaguchi vs Tokuyama University (13:10)