Urawa Reds fans protesting after a frustrating defeat to Omiya Ardija was a little odd but, at the same time, it was nice to see a little bit of passion from J.League supporters…
In April I attended three consecutive derbies in the J.League, and it was only after the final of those had finished that I really experienced anything that resembled a clash between local rivals back in England.
Perhaps unsurprisingly the incident occurred after the Saitama Derby between Omiya Ardija and Urawa Reds, when Reds fans refused to let their team leave NACK5 Stadium.
Ardija had managed to hold onto an early two-goal lead and claimed their first ever home victory over Urawa.
Reds had been kept at bay after the Mighty Squirrels parked the metaphorical bus for the final hour, and once the post-match formalities had been completed and they tried to make their exit they were soon suffering from a far more literal problem.
Security had moved barriers in place inside the ground to stop the media from getting too close but, keen to see what was going on, I headed outside to where everybody was gathered.
There were perhaps 50 or so people stood behind a banner (I couldn’t read what it said as it was facing the bus) which had been stretched out across the exit.
I made my way into the group and got my phone out to take a picture. As I did so a guy next to me told me not to take pictures. I asked why and he merely repeated I shouldn’t take one.
I took one anyway, at which he merely tutted and said that it was nothing to do with him and that he’d warned me.
My intention had been to tweet the image as I wanted to let people know what was going on. Such actions are very rare in Japan and I was sure the incident would be of interest.
If I’ve learned one thing from The Simpsons, though, it’s that you should never antagonise an angry mob, so in the end I decided against making the image public and just posted details of what was happening.
The group were not booing – in fact they were almost completely silent – and were just displaying the banner. Then I heard voices.
Head coach Mihailo Petrovic and club captain Yuki Abe had gotten off the bus and begun a dialogue with those in their way. This was fairly cyclical and comprised of assertions that this was a derby and therefore not an acceptable game to lose, points that were accepted and defended with, “We know, we give our all in every game.”
Eventually both sides reached an agreement (seemingly after Petrovic maintained that they would “fight to the death” in the next derby) and the bus was applauded out onto the road.
I have to admit that my initial impression of this scene was a positive one.
A derby match is different, and while players and coaches come and go fans are stuck with their club. Losing to your neighbours always hurts the most and there’s nothing wrong with letting the players know this.
The more I thought about it the stranger it seemed, though.
Yes, Reds had lost, but they had pretty much dominated the game and were still in a much higher position than anybody had expected ahead of the season. Why make a stand now?
I’m fairly certain there isn’t an answer to that question, and had I thought to ask anybody outside NACK5 that evening none of them would have been able to provide one.
Fundamentally, the people in the blockade were wrong. All that had happened was that their team had lost a game of football. Suck it up and move on.
However, following a team can become disproportionately important and in such circumstances relentlessly realistic explanations don’t cut it. (I’m sure they wouldn’t have done for the Gamba Osaka fan I bumped into kicking a fence near Umeda station after his side had lost their derby earlier this year, either.)
Losing hurts, and letting your team know that is not necessarily a bad thing. The Reds players had all shuffled to the front of the bus and looked to be taking the situation seriously.
It is small things like that which can pile up to build real rivalries.
Of course, we won’t really know if the little stand was successful or not until the next derby.
See you on September 1st.