East Asia Japan

Sagan Tosu – No Longer Just a Bird, Now a Phoenix

This time last year I wrote an article about how J.League 1 side Sagan Tosu are facing bankruptcy. Accumulated debt that came from their failed Galactico project, the withdrawal of key sponsors, and the COVID-19 pandemic had driven Tosu into the brink of extinction. One year on and the sky blue side of Kyushu are currently flying high in the J1, sitting pretty on 3rd after 15 matches.

Like all football club presidents Minoru Takehara had a dream. A dream to see his team reaping success left, right, and center. A dream to see his team being recognized both domestically and internationally.

To fulfill that, Takehara broke the books and brought in former Atletico Madrid, Liverpool, and Chelsea striker Fernando Torres to the Ekimae Real Estate Stadium. Sure, Torres was in a period of decline once he landed in sleepy Saga Prefecture, but his globally-recognized name and his experiences in Europe would hopefully become a catalyst to elevate Tosu into the same level as the J1 big boys, even beyond.

That did not happen.

Torres did not do much in a Tosu shirt, retiring after just one year with only 7 goals from 40 matches. The Spaniard’s exit, however, revealed a much more bigger problem for Tosu to handle.

The cost of Torres’ wages, along with the large wages of several other players in Tosu’s books, were accumulated alongside the large amount of compensation paid to former head coaches Massimo Ficcadenti and Lluis Carreras to create a pile of debt amounting almost $20 million.

It is worth noting that alongside Torres, Takehara had also drafted in the likes of Isaac Cuenca, Mu Kanazaki, Karlo Brucic, Nino Galovic, and Joan Oumari between the 2018 and 2019 seasons, with hopes that the squad will be able to break their way into the J1’s top half. But after two successive narrow escapes from the jaws of relegation in both 2018 and 2019, sponsors began to realize the futility behind Takehara’s experiment and they subsequently jumped ship.

The COVID-19 pandemic then served as a knockout blow to Tosu’s already struggling finances and as talks began to brew on whether the club could continue the 2020 season or not, the pandemic gripped Tosu without any mercy, turning the club into the first COVID cluster of the J.League.

Things seem bleak for Tosu as COVID forced the 2020 season to grind to a halt. However, two South Koreans and surprisingly a Thailand international combined together in an unlikely coincidence that would spark the Tosu revival.

A longtime servant of the club, Kim Myung-hwi was the fireman that Tosu usually call upon whenever they found themselves in a sticky situation. And while his COVID-19 diagnosis provided Myung-hwi with some time to reorganize his squad and tactics during his recovery, a thousand kilometers away in Yokohama, an interesting development would soon occur at the home of the 2019 J1 champions, Yokohama F. Marinos.

Regulations for the AFC Champions League require clubs to name only one AFC-nation player in their squad for the competition and this gave Yokohama a huge headache as they had two capable AFC players in their J1-winning team – South Korean goalkeeper Park Iru-gyu and Thai left-back Theerathon Bunmathan.

In the end Theerathon was preferred over Park as Yokohama’s AFC player for the ACL and with the rise of Powell Obinna Obi, Park suddenly found himself going from Yokohama’s undisputed number one goalie to benchwarmer in short notice.

Yokohama’s loss was Tosu’s gain though. Having sent Kanazaki out on loan to Nagoya Grampus, Tosu were looking to relax the wage bill even more by sending players out and goalkeeper Yohei Takaoka was swapped for Park in a loan deal.

Had Ange Postecoglou chose Park over Theerathon as his AFC player for the ACL, things might’ve turned out differently for Tosu.

The presence of Park between the Tosu sticks brought a sense of calm into the Kyushu-based side’s defense and the team was further aided by a number of shrewd signings done by Myung-hwi. No more big-name players, the ones that the South Korean brought in to the Ekimae Real Estate Stadium were relative unknowns but nonetheless he’s very certain that they can do the job for Tosu.

Brazilian defender Eduardo was a mainstay for the defenses of both Kashiwa Reysol and Kawasaki Frontale however in 2018 he began to decline, to the point that he couldn’t get into a Matsumoto Yamaga team battling relegation in the J1. Myung-hwi saw something in him though and he became a rock that steadied the Tosu defense in a move that could potentially revitalize him.

Myung-hwi also revitalized Riki Harakawa and brought in Tomoya Koyamatsu from Kyoto Sanga, two vital moves that helped Tosu bounce back from their torrid 2020 and managed to grind out stubborn results that enabled them to climb up the league table.

The abolishment of relegation played into Tosu’s advantage as they are able to express themselves without any fear of relegation but unlike the likes of Vegalta Sendai and Shonan Bellmare, Tosu knew that they must churn out a respectable result for the fans who had stuck alongside them throughout these tough times.

Sure Tosu frustrated a lot of teams within the J1 with a record-high 15 draws, however with relegation non-applicable, Myung-hwi could concentrate in establishing an identity for his side that was torn apart by an overly ambitious pipe dream.

In the end the draws helped Tosu significantly as they finished 13th at the end of the season, not a bad result from a team on the verge of going extinct just months earlier.

The 2021 off-season provides Myung-hwi with another challenge as he had to rebuild Tosu once again, as the club’s finances meant that they must sell players to balance the books.

Out goes Harakawa (Cerezo Osaka), Ryoya Morishita (Nagoya), Teruaki Hara (Shimizu S-Pulse) and Takeshi Kanamori (Avispa Fukuoka), however Park, Eduardo, and Koyamatsu stayed on. Myung-hwi once again worked shrewdly in the transfer market and he managed to bring in a quartet of players who would play a key role in Tosu’s rise in 2021 – Nanasei Iino, Keita Yamashita, Keiya Sento and Hwang Seok-ho.

Most importantly though, Myung-hwi decided to do the one thing that the club has ignored to do for a couple of years during their quest for brand recognition – dipping into the academy.

Having taken charge of the Tosu academy when he wasn’t called into action to save the first team, Myung-hwi oversaw a development of talent in one of Japan’s most renowned player producers. Daichi Kamada is undoubtedly the biggest name that Tosu’s academy has ever produced, with the 24-year old setting the Bundesliga alight with Eintracht Frankfurt. And during the 2021 off-season, Myung-hwi promoted a number of names who could follow in Daichi’s footsteps in a few years time.

The likes of Fuchi Honda, Daichi Hayashi, Daiki Matsuoka, Yuta Higuchi, Shinya Nakano and Ryonosuke Sagara are the latest crop of talent produced by the Tosu academy and so far each and every one of them have impressed in 2021.

With a mix of shrewd transfers, a group of youngsters hungry and eager to prove themselves to the world, and a head coach who knew the inner workings of the club and had overseen the growth of his own players for years, Tosu managed to continue their revival from 2020 and took their awakening into the next level, looking more and more likely to become this season’s dark horses as the season progresses.

Had it not for Kawasaki’s ominous start to the season (17 matches played, 14 wins, 3 draws, 0 defeats) and Nagoya’s equally blistering form (17 matches played, 11 wins, 2 draws, 4 defeats), Tosu might’ve fancy themselves a shot at the J1 title. The 7-point gap between Tosu and Nagoya might be negotiable, however the 17-point difference between Tosu and Kawasaki is an impossible shout considering the runaway leader’s impeccable form right now.

No team from Kyushu have made it into the ACL so far and should Tosu continue their superb revival, continental football might be coming to the scenic island. But as Tosu’s Leicester-esque rise continue, Myung-hwi would inevitably face a bigger challenge in the upcoming transfer window.

With Tosu’s finances still unstable, the club would inevitably have to sell their shining, rising stars to balance the books and that means they could end up like neighbors Oita Trinita should Myung-hwi couldn’t find adequate replacements as soon as possible. Tomohiro Katanosaka’s Oita side, who were the dark horses of 2019 and had a pretty decent 2020 season, are currently struggling massively in the relegation zone this season following the departure of their prized assets to greener pastures provided by larger teams.

But for now, Myung-hwi and his charges have already proven that you don’t need expensive star players to duke it out with the league’s bigger fishes. They’ve already exceeded expectations for this season and they can now focus in grabbing a spot within the top half of the league table.

Regardless of where Tosu will finish this season, they are no longer a mere black bird that rests on their club badge. That bird have evolved itself into a mighty phoenix.