/

Urawa, Shimizu play to draw in silent Saitama Stadium

by Andrew Mckirdy

Staff Writer

Urawa Reds drew 1-1 with Shimizu S-Pulse on Sunday in the first J. League game to be played behind closed doors, as punishment for a discriminatory banner hung by Urawa fans earlier this month.

Shun Nagasawa opened the scoring in the 19th minute only for Urawa’s Genki Haraguchi to equalize in the 76th minute, settling a match played in a surreal atmosphere at an empty Saitama Stadium where advertising hoardings were absent and pre-match festivities were replaced by messages denouncing racism.

The one-game supporter ban was punishment for a banner bearing the words “Japanese only,” written in English and hung over an entrance to the stands at a March 8 game against Sagan Tosu.

“I wanted to play this game in the same way I play every game, but to be honest it was difficult,” said Haraguchi. “We didn’t get going until the second half, and I think that’s because we didn’t have the crowd behind us.

“The feeling that the crowd gives you is a very powerful thing, and I think especially for me it drives me on.”

Urawa warned fans to stay well away from the 63,700-capacity stadium leading up to the match, and the area surrounding the ground was a virtual ghost town as supporters heeded the order and food and drink stalls took the day off.

J. League chairman Mitsuru Murai insisted that the game must not become a wasted opportunity to change attitudes.

“The end of this game today does not mean the end of this sad incident,” said Murai. “Everyone involved in Japanese football must think about the meaning of this game.

“Urawa Reds must use this game to get back to the original meaning of fair play and become a club that people who have gone through this unpleasant incident can count on again.”

S-Pulse’s American-Iranian manager, Afshin Ghotbi, who was the target of a banner urging him to “stop making nuclear weapons” held up by Jubilo Iwata fans in 2011, also urged everyone in Japanese soccer to learn from the mistakes that led to the ban.

“In my life I have experienced racism in various parts of the world,” he said. “Racism doesn’t have a passport and it doesn’t have a nationality. It’s a disease in society.

“When I started playing football, the ball was black and white. Now every ball has a lot of different colors. This game should be a great tipping point for Japanese football to embrace everyone.”

Urawa captain Yuki Abe led his team onto the pitch before the game to deliver a message denouncing racism.

S-Pulse then took the lead with around a quarter of the match gone, Genki Omae crossing to Mitsunari Musaka, who then cut the ball across for Nagasawa to tap home.

Haraguchi missed the chance to immediately reply for Reds, and Abe also went close with a header minutes into the second half.

Haraguchi volleyed over the bar in the 73rd minute, but the 22-year-old’s persistence paid off as he found the target three minutes later, slamming home a loose ball for the equalizer.

“It was a unique atmosphere for sure, but it was still a J. League game and the other team had the same conditions, so we’re disappointed we didn’t win,” said Urawa striker Tadanari Lee.

In the day’s other games, previously unbeaten Yokohama F. Marinos crashed to a 1-0 defeat to Ventforet Kofu, while Diego Forlan scored his first J. League goal as Cerezo Osaka ended Kashima Antlers’ perfect start to the season with a 2-0 win.

Leo Silva scored a 30th-minute winner to lead Albirex Niigata to a 1-0 victory over Sagan Tosu, and Kashiwa Reysol beat Tokushima Vortis 2-0 to leave the promoted Shikoku side on zero points and no goals scored after four games of the season.

Champions Sanfrecce Hiroshima dropped points for the second week running after a 1-1 draw with Gamba Osaka, while Kawasaki Frontale hammered FC Tokyo 4-0 away from home.

Omiya Ardija also crushed Vegalta Sendai 4-0, while Riki Matsuda scored in the 87th minute to lead Nagoya Grampus to a 2-1 win over Vissel Kobe.