Five short years ago, who would have thought it!? In 2003, Júbilo narrowly missed out on the chance to defend the league title (their third) they had won the previous season. That blow was somewhat softened by claiming the Emperor's Cup title instead. The previous six seasons had reaped three J. League titles, a Nabisco Cup crown, and an unprecedented three consecutive appearances in the final of what is now the Asian Champions League. A brand new 50000 seater stadium had just opened ten minutes from Iwata to house a fan base which frequently outstripped the 17000 capacity Yamaha, and their achievements totally eclipsed even those of S-Pulse, who were also busy racking up titles. With all this, you could have forgiven their supporters for feeling pretty confident in the future.
Five years down the line, things have gone from bad, to worse, to a level completely unimaginable a few seasons ago. Júbilo are just 90 minutes away from relegation to J2, from likely losing the handful of young, decent players they have, and probably worst, from being laughed at for years by S-Pulse fans. The empire enjoyed around the turn of the century has faded, died, and has been pushed far into the past by Júbilo's J1 peers, not least, and most importantly, by us. In 2008 S-Pulse finished better placed (much better placed!) for a third year running, and had far more impressive cup runs. We also recorded a higher average gate than Iwata for the first time since 1999, and that was even without the use of Ecopa to accommodate 30000 for our bigger games - something we did until last year.
So how could things get any worse for Shizuoka's fallen giants? Well, starting the 2009 season in J2 would be a start! That was the very real prospect their fans woke up to on Sunday morning. That they barely avoided automatic relegation to J2 was bad enough; it was only Tokyo Verdy's inferior goal different which meant Iwata finished above an automatic relegation spot. This gave them a second chance in the promotion / relegation series against J2's third placed Vegalta Sendai. The first leg on Wednesday finished 1-1, and now it's all back to Shizuoka for the game which decides it all. The match sold out in hours, and Sendai are bringing down a huge following to see (they hope) their triumphant return to J1 after relegation in 2003.
So while Júbilo's incredible fall from prominence is readily welcomed by the orange half of Shizuoka, the split between the S-Pulse fans who would embrace Júbilo's demotion and those who would hate to lose their local rivals is huge. A perusal of the S-Pulse supporters group on Mixi (think Facebook, but in Japanese) shows as many people eager the Blues stay up as there are with yellow flags at the ready ahead of tomorrow. I'll be behind enemy lines at the Yamaha and am expecting an atmosphere unlike any other this season. The game is balanced at 1-1 meaning a win for either team will be enough. In the event of a draw, the following applies:
0-0 - Júbilo win on away goals
1-1 - Extra time
2-2, 3-3 etc - Sendai win on away goals
With the away goal, and home advantage, the J1 team are clearly favourites to avoid the drop, but if the last three promotion / relegation games have taught us anything, it's that you can never underestimate the underdogs. The last three all went the way of the J2 challengers.
I've been agonising for days over who I want to win this one, and I've come to the conclusion that I want Sendai to send Júbilo down. Heck, Júbilo would already be down if we hadn't gifted them the derby last month, and that's surely more than enough charity from us. I know I'd miss the derby if Iwata drop; it's the highlight of the season and the easily the biggest home game of the season, but that's football, and there'll be more than enough Shizuoka match-ups in the future. I recently came across this photo from around 2005, when we were looking none to clever ourselves.
Come on Sendai!!!