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Status quo in Osaka – Part 1: The problems

12 Feb 2009(Thu)

The first major seeds of anticipation for the new J League season were sown last Friday with the announcement of the 2009 fixture lists, but as supporters and players across the country began to look forward to their opening matches next month, fans in Osaka were again left to rue the one game that was missing. Cerezo Osaka’s narrow failure to secure a top-three finish last season means that they will face a third straight year in the second division, and the local derby with Gamba will once again be absent from the calendar. It may not be a rivalry with the highest profile in the country, but for those of us with a vested interest, Gamba’s 3-1 win in the last Osaka derby in September 2006 feels like a very long time ago.


The rapid expansion of the J League immediately after its inauguration in 1993 was, in retrospect, undoubtedly less than ideal for the baseball-mad Kansai region in particular. Gamba had been one of the league’s ten founding members, but they were quickly joined by Cerezo in 1995 after the former Yanmar Diesel club had decided to leave their base in Amagasaki, near Kobe. Kyoto got Purple Sanga (now just plain old Kyoto Sanga) in 1996, before the old heartland of Japanese football was finally given a professional team to call its own, in the form of Vissel Kobe, the following year. In short, Gamba had gone from being the sole Kansai representatives during the J League’s initial boom to having to compete with three local rivals as the sport stagnated in the late nineties, and average attendances at Banpaku fell from their 1994 peak of 22,367 to a mere 7,996 in just five years.


In a part of the country with so much local tradition and pride, having to share the Osaka name has also caused problems for the two clubs concerned. As professional football was essentially being introduced as a fresh concept within Japanese society, the J League was intelligent enough to recognise the social importance of identity, and to implement a hometown system and a One Hundred Year Vision to compel its clubs to cultivate links with their local communities. However, Gamba have been forced to adopt the commuter town of Suita, where most people are first- or second-generation residents whose families first arrived in the 1960s or later and, as such, the extent of any roots established is rather limited. Aware of this, Gamba have sought to develop their advertising and social programmes to represent the wider Hokusetsu and Kita-Kawachi areas, but these too are rather awkward flags that few would rush to salute. Osaka is the only name that matters, and though Cerezo have taken the city itself as their hometown, an equal number of Gamba fans living within its limits means that no singular identity has been created here either.


The ultimate consequences of such issues were demonstrated in supporter surveys I conducted as part of my undergraduate research four years ago. The sheer ambiguity of Gamba’s sphere of influence was underlined by the wide variety of responses supporters gave as to where they considered the club’s hometown to be. Almost 80% of those questioned felt that Gamba had failed to establish real roots in the area, while more than half expressed dissatisfaction at the club’s treatment of its followers. Fans of Cerezo were not quite as angry as their counterparts at Banpaku, but the results of my survey at Nagai were similarly negative. Most worryingly, the representatives of Gamba whom I met to discuss my findings appeared dismissive of their significance.


Things may have improved and the boardroom may have begun to wisen since then, but wider interest in football in Osaka remains rather fickle. Though Gamba have started filling their small stadium, this has had much more to do with the team’s successes on the pitch than with the club’s efforts off it, as evidenced by the manner in which attendances fell again as soon as results took a turn for the worse last year. Cerezo, meanwhile, have seen supporter numbers fall by almost half since their relegation to J2. Issues like these clearly need to be solved if football is to develop in this part of Japan, but the best way of doing so may, however, be to turn the situation on its head. Having two teams in the city should in fact be a real positive.


(To be continued)

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