Oita Trinita embody all of the benefits of building a football club in a smaller city, while at the same time serving as a warning of what can go wrong…
A couple of weeks ago I wrote about my trip to Tottori, and the important role that I believe football clubs can play in smaller, less fashionable areas.
This relationship between team and local community has never been demonstrated more clearly to me than with Oita Trinita.
I have a special affinity with the club dating back to when I first visited soon after my arrival in Japan when they were rooted to the bottom of J1 in 2009.
Since then I have seen first-hand almost every aspect of the club, from the fans and volunteers doing what they can to help out, to the staff running the clubhouse and those at the very top making the decisions that count.
During my first trip to Kyushu I interviewed then-president Hiroshi Mizohata – a figure who very much divides opinion among Trinita fans, and indeed people within Japanese football in general – and several of his observations back then remain pertinent today.
Regardless of people’s opinions of him and the mistakes he may have made which led to Trinita being bailed out by the J.League after nearly going bankrupt following their relegation to J2, Mizohata is unquestionably a fascinating personality.
He explained to me, for example, that he preferred football to baseball because, “in baseball there is no relegation or promotion – the teams cannot move. In football, you can start at the bottom and work your way to the top.”
Trinita certainly did that, finishing fourth in J1 and winning the Nabisco Cup in 2008, before everything went downhill the following season. Now they are looking to claw their way back, something else that Mizohata touched upon.
“Defeat should motivate you to put more effort into winning next time. If you can keep this attitude then one day you will receive the ‘passport to win.’”
Success may still be some way off (even if the club can overcome its huge financial difficulties and achieve a promotion spot it will have to clear its debts to the J.League before it is allowed to move back up to J1), but there is nevertheless a real feeling of togetherness around the club.
My most recent visit was for the game against Ehime FC, when over 8,000 fans – their average for the season so far – were at the spectacular-but-far-too-big Oita Bank Dome to see Kazuaki Tasaka’s team go third with their third straight win.
Tasaka insisted after the match that the responsibility for bringing people back through the turnstiles – while in J1 they averaged nearly 20,000 for home games – lay with him and his players.
“If we keep winning then the number of fans will keep increasing,” the former Japan international said.
“Today was 8,000, hopefully next we can get up to 10,000.”
That is not to say that the club does not engage with its fans in other ways though, and although the scrap to keep Trinita in existence obviously takes its toll, my friends in Oita seem genuinely to enjoy their work and have pride in their club.
The links between Trinita and the community are visible all over the city – the onsen where I stayed was half-price the day following the victory over Ehime, for example – and providing a focal point was another of Mizohata’s stated aims when creating the club.
“I want people in Oita to be confident, to have pride in where they are from,” he told me.
“Cities like Oita need dreams like this.”
My visits always provide interesting and enjoyable experiences, and whether it be calling in at the unique Kamado Shrine in Beppu (nicknamed “Neetan Jinja” as the birthplace of the club’s mascot), working as a lifeguard at a local school with ties to the club or, as occurred on this trip, being present at a celebratory dinner with “Mr Trinita” Daiki Takamatsu where a serving error resulted in a nine-year old member of our party getting drunk on chu-hi, life in Oita is never dull.
Thankfully, after thoroughly flushing out his system, the young lad in question made a speedy recovery and was soon back to join the party.
Hopefully it won’t be too long before the same can be said for the club itself.