Soccer club Giravanz Kitakyushu has a legitimate shot at being promoted to J1, but a lack of resources may force the team to stay in J2 for a while yet.
Giravanz now sits a surprising seventh in J2, just six points out of third place, which would position the team for possible promotion to J1.
After Round 22, F.C. Tokyo is leading the second division with 41 points, ahead of Tokushima Voltis and Tochigi SC on goal difference. Kitakyushu has 35 points.
Giravanz fans are excited about the team's prospects. The team's management, however, hasn't been able to secure a stadium large enough to meet J1 standards, which means they could become the first team ever not to move up to J1 despite qualifying to do so.
Kitakyushu's results were dismal last season, its first in the J.League, when the club posted just one win in 36 games. Its winning percentage stood at .042, worst in the league and well below the previous worst record of .091 marked by J2 team Sagan Tosu in 2003. Sagan Tosu's 2003 record was the only winning percentage under .100 at the time.
But in the third game of this season, Giravanz stopped its infamous record run of consecutive winless games at 35. The club rebooted itself. The team succeeded with a strategy of letting go nine players from last season, replacing them with a dozen players with J1 experience, including midfielder Kodai Yasuda, who transferred from Gamba Osaka.
Before the season, the team had set a goal of becoming competitive in three years and being promoted to J1 in five years. Thanks to the in-game strategies implemented by team manager Yasutoshi Miura, who took over on a three-year contract, Giravanz has won 10 out of 22 games so far this season.
The team's turnaround has come at a potential record pace. The most impressive turnaround until now had seen the lowest-ranking team in J2 advance to sixth place the following season. Kitakyushu President Toshio Yokote smiles and says the results "exceed expectations." But he must be feeling a bit of panic inside. His team is nowhere close to completing a stadium that meets J1 requirements.
Under the league's regulations, official J1 games must be held in stadiums that can seat more than 15,000 people, but Giravanz's home ground of Honjo Stadium can only accommodate about 10,000. The construction of a new stadium has already been decided on, but it is expected to take about five years to complete construction.
"We have told the team that under these circumstances, it cannot move up to J1," a J.League official says.
No team has ever failed to advance to J1 after placing in the top three in J2 and winning the J. League relegation matches. If Giravanz makes it to the top three in J2 but fails to meet J1 advancement requirements, the 16th-placed team in J1 will remain in the top division without facing a two-leg relegation playoff.
Kitakyushu's budget for this season is roughly 540 million yen, about half the budget of Avispa Fukuoka, which has the smallest budget in J1. And attendance has been weak, despite Kitakyushu's impressive campaign on the field. So far, attendance has fallen below last season's average of 4,189 fans per game.
Team President Yokote doesn't sound too positive about his club's immediate prospects to move up a division.
"We've asked the city government to complete the new stadium as early as possible, even if it's just a year earlier," he says. "But it will take at least two years before we can start construction. And adding a temporary 5,000-seat stand is not easy. We are considering various measures."
At present, however, the team has yet to find a workable solution.
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