Urawa Reds will make unwanted J. League history when they take on Shimizu S-Pulse at an empty Saitama Stadium on Sunday, and S-Pulse manager Afshin Ghotbi knows from experience that it will not be an occasion to savor.
Reds became the first team to be ordered to play a game behind closed doors when J. League chairman Mitsuru Murai handed down the punishment last week for a banner bearing the words “Japanese only,” hung by fans over an entrance to the stands at a March 8 game.
The atmosphere at the 63,700-capacity Saitama Stadium — Japan’s second-biggest ground — will be unlike anything the J. League has ever seen before, but Ghotbi has previous experience having suffered the same punishment while in charge of Iranian giants Persepolis in 2007.
“If there is one club that would make Urawa look like a church meeting, it’s Persepolis,” the American-Iranian told The Japan Times ahead of Sunday’s game. “I had that experience at the Azadi Stadium, which holds 120,000 people, and it’s not something that you want to do again.
“The game was missing its soul. It’s not something that’s good for Japanese football. It will be a strange feeling playing a J. League game in an empty stadium.”
Urawa has warned fans to stay away from the stadium vicinity as the club seeks to limit the damage from an incident that has made global headlines over the past two weeks.
Urawa has also barred fans from displaying banners and flags at all games for an indefinite period, and the general mood on the terraces ahead of Wednesday’s Nabisco Cup game against Kashiwa Reysol was one of contrition.
“If you compare it to the punishments that the J. League has given out in the past, then this is quite severe,” said one Urawa fan, who wished to remain anonymous. “But if you also take the fines that we’ve had in the past into account, I think it’s fair.”
Urawa has been punished several times in the past for fan misbehavior, including a $50,000 fine for racially abusing Vegalta Sendai’s foreign players in 2010.
Urawa president Keizo Fuchita has claimed that the supporters’ group responsible for the banner wanted to warn foreigners away from their “sacred ground” behind the goal.
“If they had written what they wanted to say in Japanese instead of English, I think it would have been taken differently,” said another fan. “But even if their intentions were misunderstood, that’s what they wrote and that’s what society sees, so we have to accept the consequences.”
The sign brought back unpleasant memories for Iran-born Ghotbi, who was the target of a banner displayed by Jubilo Iwata fans in 2011 urging him to “stop making nuclear weapons.”
Jubilo escaped with a written warning while S-Pulse were forced to pay $20,000 for failing to control the crowd at their own stadium.
“I think that this (Urawa’s) particular sign is quite insulting and sad to see from any group of people anywhere in the world,” said Ghotbi. “I’ve lived in many different countries and wherever you go there is ignorance, but my feeling is that we as the human race have to do everything possible to try to educate everyone.
“In Japan I personally have been quite comfortable as a foreign manager. I think this is probably just a very small minority, and I think this issue gives us the chance to kick out racism.
“The more we talk about this issue, the more helpful it is to educate people in Japanese football. Of course there are people who think this way, but the J. League have done well to stand up to it.”