SAITAMA – Urawa Reds supporters will demand nothing less than three points from this weekend’s J. League clash with Kashiwa Reysol, but after swapping the comfort of hometown team Sanfrecce Hiroshima for the bear pit of Saitama, defender Ryota Moriwaki wouldn’t have it any other way.
Moriwaki made the switch to Reds over the winter after helping Hiroshima win its first J. League title last season, missing only one game and scoring four goals to sign off in style from the club he made his debut with in 2004.
As Moriwaki is currently discovering, however, life at Urawa is an altogether different proposition. The 2006 champions possess a fan base bigger, louder and more demanding than any other in the country, but if drifting into mediocrity is the alternative, Moriwaki is happy to embrace the challenge.
“After playing for so long at one club I wanted to put myself in a new environment,” the 27-year-old said at Urawa’s training ground earlier this week. “Sanfrecce brought me up as a player, but I felt that I had some shortcomings mentally. I think being in one place for so long was making me soft in the head. I felt that in order to grow I had to change club and change environment.
“I came here with my eyes open, knowing that this is a demanding place to play, but I have found it even more demanding than I expected. I know I have to keep working harder and harder in order to contribute to the team, but I think it’s a positive thing that the environment pushes you to keep improving all the time.”
Fortunately for Moriwaki, results since his arrival have been impressive. Reds head into the weekend third in the table with a game in hand on leaders Omiya Ardija and second-place Yokohama F. Marinos, but the defender insists improvements can always be made.
“Results haven’t been bad,” he said. “That said, there have been games where we have dropped points, and games where we had to win but ended up drawing or losing, so we can’t be satisfied. We have to keep striving to win.
“Everyone knows that Reysol are a strong team, but rather than concentrate on the opposition, we have to play our own football. They are a good team, but I think Urawa Reds are better.”
While Reds’ performances have stoked expectations among their success-starved fans, the club’s less-heralded Saitama neighbor has been stealing the headlines. Omiya set a new J. League record of 21 straight games undefeated earlier this season, and the fact that the streak included a 1-0 win over Urawa last month still rankles with Moriwaki.
“In a word, it was frustrating, but I don’t think that really does it justice,” he said. “When the game was over I felt a frustration unlike anything I’ve ever felt before. When I remember the fans’ disappointment and anger, it gets me down. But it also reminds me that losing the derby is simply not an option, and it makes me even more determined to win the title to put a smile on the supporters’ faces.
“Ardija are a very good side, and it’s an excellent thing for Saitama to have two strong teams. The rivalry is bigger than I thought. We have a lot of respect for Omiya, but when the time comes to play them again, we’ll be determined not to lose.”
Although Moriwaki may still be learning about his new club’s culture, at least he has some familiar faces around to guide him. Teammates Tomoaki Makino and Yosuke Kashiwagi and manager Mihailo Petrovic have all trodden the same path from Hiroshima to Saitama, but Moriwaki prefers to figure things out for himself.
“To have the manager and two teammates from my old club is a big thing for me,” he said. “But just because Makino, Kashiwagi and Mischa (Petrovic) are here, it doesn’t mean I’m going to play for this club for 10 or 20 years. Of course it’s good for me that my old manager is here, but I have to make my own mark and that’s what I’m trying hard to do now.”
If Moriwaki’s time at Sanfrecce is anything to go by, making a name for himself should be the least of his worries. The Hiroshima native became a fan favorite for his passionate celebrations, crowd interaction and sunny demeanor, but behind the smile lies a serious work ethic.
“People always say that I’m cheerful, but the reality is a bit different,” he said. “There are times when I go home and just shut myself away in my house.
“But when it’s time to have fun I have fun. I think this team is going in the right direction, and as the people here help me it’s nice to enjoy our time together. It’s not just the players, but the staff here are great as well, and that helps me enjoy my work.”