The day a high-school team in Japan almost beat the J League champions in an official cup game

The day a high-school team in Japan almost beat the J League champions in an official cup game

In owing to their more transient nature – and the irreplicable do-or-die spirit that permeates throughout a team of underdogs, helping to make any one-off opponent appear infinitely more conquerable – cup competitions facilitate unpredictability on a scale that weekly league football can only dream of.

Widely renowned as being the spiritual home of the giant-killing, thanks in large part to its storied history and vast, inclusive format, the FA Cup has seen innumerable upsets over the years. But England’s historic cup competition certainly has no monopoly on the upset. Peruse the archives of almost any country’s principal cup competition – from the Copa del Rey and Coppa Italia to the Copa do Brasil and Copa Argentina – and you’ll unearth upsets aplenty, their collective histories littered with Davids and Goliaths.

In no way dissimilar to these more traditional footballing nations, Japan too has its own cup competition, which similarly runs parallel to its national league system, named the Emperor’s Cup; or the Emperor’s Cup All-Japan Soccer Championship Tournament, to afford the competition its full, official title.

Unlike its European or South American counterparts, however, Japan’s foremost football cup competition does in fact boast one distinct quality that sets it apart from its rival tournaments. The Emperor’s Cup encourages the participation of universities, colleges and even high school teams, which is precisely how, in 2003, a team of high school students from Funabashi came to within a crossbar’s width of knocking out the champions of Japan.

Qualification for the Emperor’s Cup is achieved through two distinct methods. First, all clubs residing in any tier of the country’s professional league system, the J League, are automatically granted entry. As of 2015, there are three tiers to the league system – J1, J2 and J3 – though in 2003 there were just two. The alternative means of qualification, available exclusively to non-league clubs, is to win a prefectural cup.

Completing the Japanese football pyramid, there are officially four tiers beneath the top three professional leagues. Tier four is named the Japan Football League, tiers five and six are each comprised of nine regional leagues, and propping those up is the seventh tier which, along with anything ranked below it, is formed purely by prefectural leagues, each divided by the country’s idiosyncratic political or geographical boundaries.

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Japan is divided into 47 prefectures, in much the same way England is divided into counties and the United States into, well, states. If a club participates outside of the J.League system they are entitled to participate in their local prefecture’s cup and, should they triumph and go on to lift said cup, this automatically earns their admission into the following edition of the Emperor’s Cup.

With participation in prefecture cups open not to just local clubs but local schools too, it is not uncommon for teams representing colleges or universities to win them, since in some prefectures these student teams are better than their local semi-professional or even amateur contemporaries. On near-mythical occasions, a high school may even go on to vanquish all before them in earning their prefectural cup, thusly gaining qualification to the Emperor’s Cup – and it was in precisely this fashion that Funabashi Municipal High School began their remarkable journey in 2003.

In late November, the curtain fell on the year’s J League Division 1 championship. Having ended both stages of the split-season at the top of the table, by virtue of a single point, Yokohama F. Marinos were crowned champions of Japan.

Around the same time as the Marinos’ celebrations got underway, the slighter teams participating in the opening rounds of the season’s Emperor’s Cup were settling into their starting blocks; each hoping to craft for themselves a memorable marathon, as opposed to a short-lived sprint. Among the hopefuls were Funabashi Municipal High School, winners of the prefectural cup of Chiba, a prefecture in the Kantō region perched on the country’s east coast.

In the competition’s first round, Funabashi were drawn to face Thespa Kusatsu, a semi-professional club that had recently secured promotion to the Japan Football League, the country’s third tier. In a close encounter, Funabashi overcame their opponents by a solitary goal to nil. In the second round, the high-schoolers were paired with Hannan University, winners of the Osaka prefectural championship and, once again, Funabashi prospered with a 1-0 win.

With the third round traditionally the stage in which the J League’s top tier clubs entered the tournament, many of the country’s smallest teams, should they have had the good fortune of making it to the third round, would pray to be drawn against one of the giants of Japanese football. In this regard, Funabashi were no different, and their prayers were answered when the subsequent third round draw placed them against Yokohama F. Marinos. Eleven days before Christmas, the high school students of Funabashi were gifted the opportunity to face off against the nation’s champions.

On the day, all hopes of an implausible upset seemed to have been extinguished as early as the sixth minute as the champions found themselves two goals to the good before their youthful opponents had even begun to acclimatise to the occasion. Yet no further goals were scored before the interval and, despite being dominated, with the score at just 2-0, Funabashi were far from dead and buried.

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Dutch-Japanese footballer Robert Cullen, who today plies his trade in the English seventh tier with Leatherhead FC, still remembers the occasion fondly. In speaking to These Football Times, Cullen recalled: “We were thinking we were going to lose 10-0 or something, so we were just thinking ‘enjoy this experience and feel this great atmosphere’.” This humble propitious mindset, the enduring determination to simply enjoy the unlikely occasion, would prove pivotal.

In the second half, Yokohama continued to dominate proceedings, demanding the lion’s share, but found no third goal. Then, as the game’s 70th minute loomed, Yokohama goalkeeper Kenichi Shimokawa fatally fumbled a long swirling free-kick, presenting an opportunity that Funabashi captain Tatsuya Masushima gratefully gobbled up.

The Japanese champions put their defensive indiscretion behind them quickly and regained their firm control over the tie. But instead of sitting on their advantage, battening down the hatches and halting any hopes of a late high school rally, Yokohama poured forward in search of a third, comeback-quashing goal. As a result, with little more than five minutes remaining of the game, Funabashi were able to muster a telling counter of their own.

A loose Yokohama throw-in surrendered possession deep into Funabashi territory, allowing the losing side to clear their lines. The clearance arrived at the feet of midfielder Cullen who swivelled and immediately surged forward. With just four players ahead of him, three desperate defenders and a willing teammate, Cullen drove forward. The defenders retreated further and further until one single touch was enough to see Cullen outpace each of them and squeeze into the area. There, Cullen took one more steadying touch, looked up, and fired the ball across the face of goal where it found Kota Tanaka, on hand to tuck home the simplest of equalisers.

With barely five minutes remaining the high schoolers from Funabashi had drawn level with the champions of Japan. Funabashi’s coach attempted poorly to contain his excitement. His managerial contemporary, in the opposite dugout, wore a nauseated expression.

Less than two minutes later, Funabashi substitute Toru Kotobuki found himself on the end of a hopeful flick forward. The ball, seemingly intended for his teammate, evaded both its original target and the despairing lunge of the defender beside him, and suddenly he was one-on-one with Yokohama’s goalkeeper. With no time at all to consider his options, Kotobuki instinctively attempted to scoop the ball over the onrushing goalkeeper but succeeded only in striking it against his midriff. The ball flicked up and over the goalkeeper, continuing its goalbound path, only to kiss the crossbar on its way down before heading out for a corner. The Funabashi forward has come to within a crossbar’s width of snatching the win for his high school.

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Before the half was done, yet more drama awaited. Masushima, Funabashi captain and goalscorer, saw red; issued a second yellow card, having adjudged to have dived under the referee’s nose. If Funabashi were to complete their historic comeback, they’d be made to do so a man light.

Neither the contest’s resident predators nor their supposed prey proved capable of netting the winner in extra time and so the game was decided by penalties. In the ensuing shootout, Yokohama goalkeeper Shimokawa’s heroics absolved him of his earlier mishap. Grasping the opportunity to become his team’s belated hero, he confidently beat away two penalties while each of his outfield teammates dispatched theirs beyond his opposite number. By four penalties to one, Funabashi were beaten.

“We didn’t expect the game to be like that. We were only a high school team that won two times and faced the J League champions. Finally we surprised everybody. That was an amazing feeling,” Cullen reminisced. “That news was on TV everywhere. Still people are talking about this story,” he enthused. “Whenever I meet football fans they always speak this story to me. I’m very proud of it.”

In the following round, Yokohama defeated top-tier newcomers Sanfrecce Hiroshima with considerably less fuss, triumphing by two goals to one, but would later come unstuck at the quarter-final stage against the relative might of Kashima Antlers, losing 4-1. In the subsequent years, Funabashi haven’t yet managed to qualify for another shot at the Emperor’s Cup. However, in the same period, neither has any rival high school team conspired to dare reach the third round, ensuring Funabashi’s legacy remains untouched for the foreseeable future.

As for the squad that came so close to conquering their nation’s elite, many of its players would go on to have professional careers; over half, in fact, being acquired by professional clubs immediately after their graduation. Of particular note were Yuya Satō who went to Ventforet Kofu, Hidenori Ishii who signed for Montedio Yamagata, Shuto Suzuki acquired by Kashima Antlers, Kodai Watanabe who transferred to Vegalta Sendai, and Hirotsugu Nakabayashi, who linked up with Sagan Tosu.

Furthermore, as well as joining Tokyo FC and Júbilo Iwata, respectively, Tatsuya Masushima, the team’s captain, and Robert Cullen, the architect of his team’s second goal against Yokohama, would both represent their country at youth level, featuring in the 2004 Asian Youth Championships as well as the World Youth Championships the following year, before continuing along the road of their own notable professional careers.

Though they failed to make the grade, in attempting to bring to life the upset so unlikely they never even thought to dream it, the boys of Funabashi High School were able to turn the tables on their seniors, even if only for a single afternoon, in teaching the champions of Japan a lesson they’d never forget.

By Will Sharp @shillwarp

Parts of this story were originally told on Reddit. 

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