J-LEAGUE: RELEGATION MAY REVITALISE NIIGATA

Niigata has never been tailed off in last place midway through the season. This is the end.

Niigata Fans
Albirex Niigata's faithful fans at Kashiwa in 2015.

Albirex Niigata has been a part of the J-League since the inception of J2 in 1999 and is now a J1 mainstay. The club won promotion to the top tier of the J-League in 2003 with victory in J2. Since 2004 Niigata has never been relegated but on the other hand has never threatened for the title. In spite of this mid level mediocrity the club’s other distinguishing feature is its staunch support base.

In 2017 Albirex Niigata sits anchored to the bottom of the J-League table on 8 competition points after 17 matches. This leaves them 7 points adrift of J1 survival. Despite this, the club has still averaged 23,654 from their eight home matches to date. The resolute Niigata fans who endure ice cold winds from the Sea of Japan every home game, have shown this form since their arrival in J1 in 2004. Back in 2004 they averaged 37,864 fans per match while in 2005 they bettered that, by averaging 40,114. With a lack of concrete success crowds have gradually dwindled over the years, from 30,542 in 2010, to as low as 21,091 in 2016. But these are figures most clubs could only dream of.

Returning to the current year though and the Albirex Niigata situation is as bad as it has ever been in terms of J1 survival. In my time observing the J-League I have never seen Niigata in a position like this. The club has made a habit of surviving the cut by the narrowest of margins over the years – famously forcing the mighty Gamba Osaka into the ignominy of J2 back in 2012. But throughout previous campaigns Niigata has never been tailed off in last place midway through the season. This is the end.

After a dreadful start to the season new manager Fumitake Miura was replaced by Brazil born Wagner Lopes (now a Japanese citizen). Briefly it seemed Lopes may be capable of turning things around for Niigata after a first up win against Consadole Sapporo (1-0). But the optimism dissipated after five straight J-League losses. The clock is ticking.

Albirex Niigata has conceded 37 goals and scored a measly 11 in their 17 J-League matches. It’s pitiful. The loss of midfield strongman Leo Silva to Kashima has had a crushing impact. Silva was regularly among the league’s top ball winners and his departure is bing felt in both attack and defence. Forward Rafael Silva is also being missed. The 25 year old provided 10 goals in 2015 and 11 goals in 2016. Niigata is yet to find an equivalent replacement for either of the Silvas.

Niigata will be relegated in 2017 and in the wake of their forced sojourn from J1 maybe there will be positive change. Kashiwa Reysol went down in 2009 and returned to take the title in Japan’s top tier in 2011. Gamba Osaka won J2 in 2013 before winning the top flight in 2014. This year Cerezo Osaka has arrived in J1 after two season in J2. They’re currently one point from the top of the J-League. A visit to the lower confines, the underworld, can change a football club. There has to be a rethink at Albirex Niigata. Are they happy merely surviving from year to year in the J-League or are they going to aim higher?

I am hoping for change in a club that has so much potential. If for no other reason, do it for the fans.

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