The J.League is aiming for a higher international profile, but the headlines created by Urawa Reds’ fans recent misdemeanour weren’t exactly what they were after… (日本語版はこちらです：http://www.footballchannel.jp/2014/03/29/post33132/)
There was something quite eerie about the whole spectacle – as Afshin Ghotbi said post-match, it was as if the game “didn’t have a soul”.
I’ve seen enough Tokyo Verdy games at Ajinomoto Stadium to not be too phased by swathes of empty seats, but an uninhabited Saitama Stadium for an Urawa Reds fixture was truly bizarre. I’d half-expected there to at least be some fans congregated at Urawa-Misono station but to a man, woman, and child they had heeded the request of the club and stayed well away.
The media, too, had been issued with guidelines by Reds, and having dutifully arrived more than two hours before kick-off we filed in, received our “Sports For Peace” folders, stickers, and Urawa Reds English-language media guides, before listening to Yuki Abe deliver a speech denouncing discrimination of all forms (unlike his namesake running the country there weren’t any fears that the Reds captain was going to suggest any revisions to previous apologies).
The game was then played out to a backdrop of nothing but the voices of the players and coaching staff, and while those involved in the match claimed not to have had any less concentration than usual – “When I play you hear the fans but you just block it out,” S-Pulse’s Calvin Jong-a-pin said afterwards. “You just focus on the game so it was just like every other game for me.” – for those watching in the stadium, and I’m sure on TV too, it felt just like a training game.
Was the punishment deserved? No. Was it the right thing to do? Yes.
20 or so fans scrawling “Japanese Only” does not warrant 40,000 people being barred entry to the stadium – the punishment does not fit the crime. As on the pitch though, multiple offences produce a caution and Reds supporters have plenty of previous – particularly against Shimizu. Last year they refused to let the S-Pulse fans leave after their 1-0 win at Saitama Stadium (in 2013 they weren’t allowed out, this year they weren’t allowed in, what lies in store in 2015?), while some idiots hurled fire-crackers at the S-Pulse bus after the away game. Taken in isolation both of those incidents are actually far worse than a graffitied bedsheet.
My first reaction when I saw the now infamous ‘Japanese Only’ banner was actually to laugh. Was it clumsy use of English trying to express pride at a team of all Japanese players? An attempt at being ‘hardcore’? Actual racism? I felt I could afford myself a grin at whichever one of these it turned out to be.
Racism, of course, isn’t funny, but I personally feel that the best way to deal with people who hold such views is to treat them with as little seriousness as possible. I perhaps wouldn’t quite put it in such flower-powery terms as Afshin Ghotbi – who suggested that, “If there are a few people that are ignorant in this country let’s love them, let’s teach them,” – but I share the sentiment. People who actually discriminate against someone because of their nationality, race, skin colour, or any other difference are obviously a few players short of a matchday squad.
That approach was obviously not an option for the league though, and when considering that overseas media was also latching onto the story and that the J.League is desperately trying to entice fans from outside the country to boost the dwindling numbers of domestic supporters, something big had to be done to show they meant business.
“It has received a lot of coverage in the media so many people will have been aware of this game,” Tadanari Lee said after the match. “Sports For Peace; we wore the t-shirts and we hoped to play today’s game in that way. We have to keep going that way from now on too.
“From just one banner it has developed into this big problem and hurt many people’s feelings. We grasp that this is a big problem and I think the fans do too. I really don’t want this kind of thing to happen a second time.”
In order to prevent something similar happening again this judgment had to be passed down, and the amount of attention the incident has received can only help towards that aim.
“I think this is an important chance to talk about what happened,” Ghotbi said in his post-match press conference. “I’ve experienced discrimination in various parts of the world. Racism and discrimination doesn’t have a passport, it doesn’t have a nationality. It’s a disease of our society. It’s passed on generation to generation, from parents to children.”
To stop that cycle a stand had to be made, even if, as Ghotbi pointed out, it was to the detriment of one J1 match.
“To be honest I didn’t enjoy the game,” the 50-year-old said. “I didn’t enjoy it because it didn’t have fans. It didn’t have a voice. It didn’t have the beautiful colours of orange and red fighting each other. The content at times was good and at times was poor. Probably because it lacked the power and the energy of its fans. So I hope it’s the last time we play in an empty stadium.”
On that I think everybody is agreed.