imageIf there’s a Manchester United in Japan, it is probably Urawa Red Diamonds from Saitama, which is a city north of Tokyo but part of the Greater Tokyo area.

It’s not just because they play in a United-style kit, but it helps. The club is the best supported in Japan, averaging some 37,000 per game in 2013, some 10,000 more than the next best, Yokohama Marinos. They also have, reputedly, the most passionate fans, and after the recent  “Japanese Only” banner displayed at the Saitama Stadium, arguably the most controversial. Urawa are also said to be the most popular club in Asia. I was informed they are certainly the noisiest club.

Oh so [relatively] quiet

imageAnyone from the west paying Urawa a visit, which Game of the People did for the Nabisco J-League Cup game between the Reds and Tokushima Vortis, may find that a little hard to believe. The magnificent Saitama Stadium, another monument to World Cup 2002, is a very open arena, and the sound evaporates into the night. But the mass bank of Urawa fans behind the goal do make themselves heard. They jump up and down and sing for much of the 90 minutes. When they stop, and it us an impressive sight, you can hear a pin drop around the ground.

The Japanese custom of politeness prevails at a football match. People bow at you as they check your ticket, show you to your seat, serve you food or sell you a programme. It is so dramatically different from a trip to Stamford Bridge, White Hart Lane, or even your local non-league team in Britain. While you are generally herded like cattle when you go to a big football match in the UK, in Japan, you are made to feel like a “customer”. At the Saitama Stadium you even have a drink holder in front of your seat. There’s much to learn from this ultimate consumer society.

Diamonds are a girl’s best friend

imageThe whole stadium experience was so pleasant. The lighting (ok, we were in the land of high technology, with WIFI connections on every corner) was quite superb, not to mention the quality of the playing surface. But, and it’s hard to be critical of a race that is so hygienic, apologetic, disciplined and courteous, the atmosphere in much of the ground seemed a little sleepy. I will get onto the game itself, which incidentally, was richly entertaining and exciting, but the spectators were more an “appreciative audience” than a ranting, pleading and abusive football crowd.

This may have something to do with the fact that there were a very high number of women at the game, in fact almost one in two in my part of the stadium and from what I saw, girls were the most enthusiastic fans. Again, a very positive development. It may also be helped by the J-League’s “Manners and rules” that are broadcast on the huge screens. On the evidence of my fortnight in Tokyo, manners are firmly and culturally embedded into society, so it’s not that difficult to ask for them at football. In the UK, the football ground is the one place you don’t expect good manners!

What goes on behind closed doors…

Urawa have started the J-League campaign quite well, winning four of their seven games imageand drawing one. They came into this Nabisco Cup group game on the back of a 2-1 win at Nagoya Grampus, the club that Arsene Wenger once managed and Gary Lineker played for. Urawa coach Mihailo Petrovic, a former Red Star Belgrade player, made sweeping changed to his line-up for the tie – sounds a familiar tactic – and only two players who played at Nagoya were involved against Tokushima.

Urawa had to play one home fixture behind closed doors after the “racist” banner incident. They drew with Shimuzu S-Pulse in that game, underlining that their home form is not as impressive as their displays away from the Saitama. On the road, they have won three of their four league games, including a 2-0 success at reigning champions Sanfrecce Hiroshima.

Urawa’s last J-League title win was in 2006, but they won the Asian Champions League in 2007, beating Iran’s Sepaphan in the two-legged final. They went on to finish third in the FIFA Club World Cup. They haven’t won anything significant since 2007, although they were runners-up in the League Cup in 2013, losing 0-1 to Kashiwa Reysol. In 2013, they finished sixth in the J-League.

A night of Vorticism

imageMy immediate reaction to the name, Tokushima Vortis, was the fictional planet Vortis from Dr Who. Vorticism was also an art movement from the early 20th century, but Wyndham Lewis – or indeed our friendly time travelling friend – holds no sway here in Japan, certainly not with the 50 or so Tokushima fans who made the trip from the island of Shikoku to the metropolis.

Tokushima’s stay in the J-League 1 may only be brief. They are a small club, usually playing in front of crowds of around 4,000 and they are the first team from Shikoku to make the top division. Prior to this game, Vortis had lost all seven league fixtures, conceding 22 goals and scoring just once. At the weekend, they had lost 0-3 against Vissel Kobe. To make matters worse, they had lost their previous Nabisco Cup game against Albirax Niigata.

Tokushima ran out in shirts emblazoned with the sponsor name of Pocari Sweat, a brand of mineral water. I’m not sure such a brand – with use of the word sweat – would catch on in certain locations. The one thing, however, that Vortis did for 90 minutes was work up a sweat, because they really gave their hosts a fright.

Overseas influences

The banner may have been misinterpreted, but Game of the People and it’s party attracted curious glances in the stadium. But it was clear that Urawa and Tokushima’s fans have been influenced by European football. For a start, on sale outside the ground were “Forza Urawa” scarves, and then there were the chants that aped Premier and Serie A crowds, notably the Tokushima fans from the “chaos curva” singing a tune from the movie, The Sting, that resembled Chelsea’s “John Terry has done the double…”. At the other end, you could hear strains of Rod Stewart’s “Sailing”.

imageOn the pitch, Urawa fielded an all-Japanese line-up, but Tokushima had a Brazilian and a South Korean in their ranks. Urawa started well, with Keita Suzuki trying to run the middle and captain Yosuke Kashiwagi busy on the flank, but the visitors were energetic, if a little lacking in technique. Nevertheless, it was Tokushima who took the lead on 19 minutes, a corner from Sho Hanai hit first time by the left foot of Ryo Kobuta.

Urawa equalised after 32 minutes, the industrious Kashiwagi sending over a corner, Tokuya Aoki nodded it on and at the far post, Tofofumi Sakano bundled the ball home. The stadium came to life, the Urawa fans around us ( still seated) all exclaimed their approval, “ohhhhhh….”.

Urawa went ahead in the 50th minute, a nice build up ending with a low drive from Shinya Yajima that Tokushima goalkeeper Toru Hasegawa should have really stopped.

Plucky Vortis

Tokushima refused to lay down, though, and in the 61st minute, they took advantage of a defensive lapse by Urawa and Daiki Kogure raced through to shoot past Nobohiro Kato, who should also have done better in preventing a goal.

Seven minutes later, Urawa had another shock as Vortis took the lead again. A cross from Urawa’s right by Yu Eto was met with the proverbial textbook header from Brazilian Douglas. It was the goal of the game, but it was still not enough for Vortis.

Five minutes from time, another cross by Kashiwagi caught defender Yoshiaki Kinoshita off his guard and he could only help the ball into the net to make it 3-3.

Urawa were not finished, being urged on by their fans behind the goal they were attacking. Interestingly, the fans around us also came to life and when the winning goal went in after 90-plus minutes, a well planted headed by US-born Mizuki Hamada from Kashiwagi’s perfect cross, they stood up and applauded excitedly.

That was enough to win the game for Urawa, a blow for Tokushima who had worked so hard for so long.

Passion of a different kind?

imageSo the Japan trip ends with a sweet taste in the mouth. There was great enthusiasm among the 17,000 crowd for this game, but it was altogether more restrained than in the west. Is that a bad thing? Not at all. We’ve allowed football to become an excuse for many types of bad behaviour, on and off the pitch. How often have we heard “he plays like that because he wants to win”, or “he’s passionate about the club, so he gets a bit carried away”?

Japan wants to create a “happy stadium”, and that was certainly evident at this game. Fortunately, it’s not the type of crowd that the US used to have back in the 70s – “soccer is a kick in the grass” – but it is not a classic European testosterone-soaked environment. If only we could extract a little of the Japanese  “user experience” to make football grounds more friendly and family-orientated, and in exchange, perhaps Japan might adopt some of the more positive elements of football-watching in some of Europe’s more passionate stadiums. It will be worth keeping an eye on how Japanese football evolves over the coming years. I certainly intend to return to check on their progress…