After a year-and-a-half living in Japan I had almost forgotten that football fans could get quite nasty. The recent will-he-won’t he involving Wayne Rooney and the two Manchester clubs reminded me of how high passions can run though, and provided the subject of my column for Weekly Soccer Magazine at the start of November.
A few weeks ago Wayne Rooney shocked football fans the world over by declaring that he wanted to leave Manchester United. He claimed that the club was lacking in ambition and that he felt he needed to move on.
Rumours immediately started that he would be heading to newly-rich neighbours Manchester City and, during United’s Champions League match with Bursaspor of Turkey, fans unfurled a collection of banners expressing their anger with the player’s actions (including one calling him a ‘whore’).
A couple of days later, a gang wearing balaclavas gathered outside the player’s house and made death threats. They (and he) needn’t have worried though, as he decided to stay in the end and was reportedly rewarded with a nice new £180,000 (￥23,000,000) a week contract.
All very exciting, but why am I discussing it in my column on Japanese football? I hear you ask.
Well, this episode and the reaction it sparked in the fans highlighted one of the biggest differences between supporters – and what is acceptable behaviour by them – in England and Japan.
In particular, the fury stirred up by the suggestion that Rooney may follow his ex-strike partner Carlos Tevez across the city and swap the red shirt for a blue one provided an interesting contrast to the way that rivalries are played out in the J.League.
In the past couple of months here, the GM of Urawa Reds has had to issue a formal apology to FC Tokyo after some of the club’s fans displayed a banner mocking their rivals, and Gamba Osaka supporters were reprimanded for raising flags bearing the trophies their club had won as a direct taunt to the visiting Cerezo Osaka fans behind the opposite goal.
Nobody’s life was threatened, no physical contact had occurred but the message was clear; goading of the opposition is not acceptable.
But why? I’m all for safety, fair play and a wholesome, rounded, enjoyable environment in which people of all ages, races and sexes can enjoy the game. Quite how a teasing flag here or cleverly-worded chant there calls this into doubt is a little beyond me though.
At Old Trafford there is a permanent banner featuring a counter of the number of years the blue half of the city have gone without winning a trophy (currently 34). City, meanwhile, shortly after snatching Tevez from United, launched a series of billboard ads to antagonise the Red Devils featuring an image of the striker and reading “Welcome to Manchester”.
Furthermore, a huge percentage of the songs sung in English football stadiums are not in support of a team but instead directed against the opponent (or the referee). While instances such as those mentioned above suggest that the tide is changing a little in Japan, the majority of fans here still focus all of their attention on supporting their team and very little abusing the other ones.
There has, of course, been a lot more time for rivalries to develop in England, and it is not always easy to keep them confined to playful songs or flags. The wave of hooliganism that shamed the game in the 70s and 80s has been almost totally removed though, and the banter in the stadiums is a defining characteristic and vital element of the English game.
In fact, I feel that that is one of the only things missing from the live football experience in Japan.
Instead of the authorities overreacting to the slightest piece of baiting in J.League arenas, the positive impact a little tension can have on the atmosphere in stadiums should be appreciated.
While it is understandable to have concerns about heading down a road towards potential conflict, physical violence is highly unlikely to become a problem in the country, and I actually believe that allowing a little animosity to creep into the atmosphere at the stadium would add to the allure of going to a live match rather than detract from it.
If such oversensitivity continues though, and supporters continually have their attempts at creating a little bit of hostility stamped down upon, then the league may never be able to truly develop into one of the most exciting in the world.