The Other Northern League

Onagawa Supporters’ Mike Innes has, of course, featured in these pages before. Here he gives us a beginners’ guide to the Tohoku Shakaijin League, putting the plural into Northern Leagues United.

As a visitor to ¡Viva Northern League! chances are you’re aware of the fundraiser event that will be held at Birtley Town FC on 9th July. It’s looking like a tremendous day for fans of local football, with three matches to enjoy including a friendly between a Football Writers’ XI and a Northern League Fans’ XI that promises a host of special guest appearances. The money raised on the day will be split between hosts Birtley Town and Cobaltore Onagawa – the football club formed in a small town in north-east Japan as a means of encouraging local youngsters to remain in their home community. Cobaltore are now concentrating their efforts on helping their town to fight back from the disaster of the March 11th tsunami.

In happier times Cobaltore’s first team play in the Tohoku Shakaijin League and it’s this competition which, along with the Northern League itself, is referred to in the title of the 9th July event, Grassroots International: Northern Leagues United. But while the story of Cobaltore Onagawa has attracted much attention and the setting up in England of the Onagawa Supporters group to aid the club in their local activities, a lot less is known about the league they play in.

So to kick off, what does the name mean?

Tohoku is a region of Japan, comprising six prefectures in the far north-east of the main island of Honshu (a prefecture is Japan’s equivalent of a county); in fact the word Tohoku means “east north”. Shakaijin is trickier to translate but it generally refers to people who have graduated from high school, so in footballing terms that would be anyone who’s too old to play for a youth team.

How is the league organised?

Normally there are 24 teams split into a Division 1, a Division 2 (North) and a Division 2 (South), with eight teams in each and a season running from April to October. But the tsunami has changed things at least for 2011, as we’ll see.

What kind of level is it?

This is a much easier question to answer in Japan than it is in England because the Japanese pyramid system of leagues is much more straightforward. At the top there are the two divisions of the professional league, the J-League. Underneath that is the top level of semi-pro and amateur football, the Japan Football League (JFL). Underneath that are nine Regional Leagues, of which the Tohoku Shakaijin League is one. So Division One is at the fourth tier of the pyramid. Teams that get relegated out of the Regional Leagues go into their appropriate Prefectural League.

When was the Tohoku Shakaijin League founded?

Well, while the Northern League is of course rightly proud of its status as the oldest grassroots football league in the world, in Japan the Regional League set-up was established over a period of about a decade and a half from the mid-1960s onwards. The Tohoku Shakaijin League began in 1977 with a grand total of five participating teams and has gradually expanded since that time.

What kind of teams play in the league?

There are basically four types. Most could be described as happily amateur community-based clubs, such as Morioka Zebra and Marysol Matsushima. There’s one team from Fuji University and a handful of company sides like Nippon Steel Kamaishi, the first Tohoku champions back in 1977. Then there are those community clubs who are specifically wanting to turn professional, targeting promotion to the JFL and ultimately the J-League. The highest-profile of these are Fukushima United and Grulla Morioka, the latter of whom in particular have over the last few seasons have developed an unfortunate reputation for failing to negotiate the play-offs via which top Regional League teams gain promotion to the JFL.

How big are the crowds?

It varies a lot, partly because of the contrasting nature of the teams and partly because Japanese clubs don’t own their own grounds. This means that a team is likely to have to play “home” fixtures at several different locations during the course of a year. In the 2010 season, the biggest gate by a very long way was 2100 for the last-day-of-the-season championship decider between Grulla and Fukushima United (Grulla won 2-1 to take the title on goal difference). Cobaltore Onagawa pulled in 470 for their game with Fukushima and that’s why the target for the Grassroots International event is 471 – we want to beat their record! For some of the smaller teams things can go down to a couple of dozen but a rough average would be about 100 or so.

So how are things going this season?

Obviously the 11 March tsunami has been a total catastrophe for Tohoku, impacting on every aspect of life in the region. In terms of the league the start of the season was delayed to the middle of May, several teams – including Cobaltore – have had to withdraw and the regionalised second divisions have been merged into a single division as a consequence. As with most sporting events in Japan at the moment crowds are down, although it’s not hard to find reasons why: Fukushima United’s home games, for instance, are not even being played in their own prefecture, so inevitably attendances have been affected.

On the pitch, though, there’s a lot to get excited about. In spite of the appalling problems affecting their area from the tsunami and the now-infamous nuclear power plant Fukushima have got off to a stunning start, winning all five of their games so far with a goal difference of +27(!). The promotion race from Division 2 looks as if it will be a cracker, with Reinmeer Aomori and Vanraure Hachinohe from the far north making life as difficult as possible for monied favourites FC Ganju Iwate.

What are the prospects for Cobaltore?

The prospects are good and the aim is that Cobaltore will return to the Tohoku Shakaijin League for 2012. The reality is, though, that the club needs outside help to continue the amazingly successful work they were doing before the tsunami. The first team players are concentrating this year on relief work and food production, but Cobaltore are trying to keep local kids engaged by continuing to run soccer schools and youth teams at U12, U15 and U18 levels. As the club lost all their equipment in the 11 March disaster and now have no real sources of income, Onagawa Supporters have used money that we’ve raised to fund kit for these young players.

To take the U18 team as a single example of current activity that we hope long term will encourage a sense of local pride among the young people of Onagawa, they’re entering three tournaments this year at prefectural and regional level. We think it’s vitally important for the future of the town that Cobaltore’s youngsters play in these competitions. But for that to happen costs money that the club don’t have, for instance because the training ground that the boys use is rented space and because they’re currently playing a series of eight games that will require repeated round trips of 300 miles. That’s why the Grassroots International: Northern Leagues United event is so fantastic, as it’s an expression of real solidarity and practical support by players and fans of local football – from the north-east of England to the north-east of Japan.

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