The relationships between football clubs and their fans are precarious and constantly evolving. Poor results don’t help matters, but they aren’t everything… (日本語版はこちらです: http://www.footballchannel.jp/2015/03/13/post76754/)
After Urawa Reds slumped to their third straight defeat to start the 2015 season – an uninspiring 1-0 loss at home to Brisbane Roar in the Asian Champions League – captain Yuki Abe was moved to return to the booing fans behind the home goal and plead for patience.
The negativity around the club which choked so spectacularly at the end of the 2014 season and, despite an influx of some of the best talent in the J.League over the off-season, had suffered something of a false-start to the 2015 term was in stark contrast to the mood at Toyota and Ajinomoto Stadiums on the opening weekend.
First up, 10,000 Matsumoto Yamaga fans travelled down to Aichi for their side’s J1 debut, and were almost rewarded with the perfect result. Despite ultimately being unable to hang on and having to settle for a point in a thrilling 3-3 draw, there was no discontent among the travelling hordes – some of whom had arrived at Toyota Stadium at 3am for a 2pm kick-off to make the most of an historic occasion for a club which only joined the Japan Football League (then the third level of Japanese football) in 2010.
In amongst the J.League’s many attempts to foster community engagement with its ever-growing number of clubs – whether they be well-intentioned-but-ultimately-meaningless ‘derbies’, an array of cute/confusing/terrifying mascots, or sending godawful ‘tarento’ groups to perform at the stadium – Matsumoto stands out as something of an anomaly: a club which holds sway with its fan base because it genuinely represents them.
Yamaga does well to embrace its role as a symbol of the area, but its popularity is more organic than that. The fan-base essentially existed before Yamaga came into being, and locals who are exceptionally proud of their hometown – for a variety of historical reasons too complex to discuss here – became able to express those feelings through supporting the club. That stands in contrast to several newer teams in the J.League pyramid, who are attempting to create regional pride by giving areas clubs to be get behind.
The day after Yamaga nearly grabbed three points on their top-flight debut, Tokyo Verdy – once, in a previous guise, the giant of the Japanese game – demonstrated another way it is possible to earn respect and patience from those paying to watch you play, as the side which very nearly dropped down to J3 in 2014 almost beat Cerezo Osaka on the opening day of J2.
Three of those starting the game against Paolo Autuori’s expensively-assembled squad came through the Verdy academy – including 18-year-old Kento Misao, who had an excellent professional debut in central midfield up against Japan internationals Hotaru Yamaguchi and Takahiro Ogihara, and, of course, Diego Forlan.
The decision to channel the graduates into the first team so quickly is obviously a result of the club’s limited budget, but it is good to see Verdy finally realising that the glory years are behind them, and that signing ageing and ineffective former stars is not the path to follow if they want to get back into J1.
Koichi Togashi is the perfect man to have in charge of the team having developed so many of the players in their younger years, and some of the football the side played against Cerezo was incredibly easy on the eye and clearly a result of the understanding between those on the pitch. That is something that will not only keep people coming to the stadium and getting behind the team – 12,217 did so on the opening weekend – but will also ultimately coax lapsed fans back and bring new supporters through the turnstiles as well.
Which brings us back to Saitama.
The attendance at Reds’ aforementioned game against Brisbane (13,527) was not much higher than that at Verdy-Cerezo, and, despite the opening day win over Shonan Bellmare, there is a definite sense of a growing divide between the club and the people of Urawa who traditionally, rather like Matsumoto fans, are fiercely proud of their hometown and the bonds between the area and its football club.
The failure to secure titles when they have been within reach is obviously a factor in this – as is the fallout from the ‘Japanese Only’ furore last year, when the club banned several key supporter’s groups – but does not explain it fully – after all, Reds have not been anywhere near as successful as a club with its budget, reputation, and fanbase should have been.
The lack of a coherent plan to fine-tune a team which has come so close would appear to be the main bugbear of those in the stands, though, so too the tactical inflexibility of head coach Mihailo Petrovic – who, although not willing to budge on his philosophy, did at least come out and put himself in the line of fire to defend his players.
“I’m the one who has to take responsibility for the team,” he said after the Brisbane defeat. “If anyone should be getting booed then it is me.”
There was some debate about whether supporters booing their own team could be justified, and Yosuke Kashiwagi expressed shock at the response to Reds’ lethargic display. “It seemed like we weren’t fighting together,” the midfielder complained.
He may have a point in that respect, and it does seem counter-productive to heckle your own players. However, as Yamaga and Verdy show, it is key to foster a connection between those on the pitch and those in the stands, and at the moment that is certainly lacking in Saitama.
Were the fans right to boo? Probably not. Do I understand why they did? Absolutely.