Updated: Sunday, 23 March 2014 19:18 | By Agence France-Presse

Japan's Urawa play in empty stadium after racist sign

Urawa Red Diamonds drew 1-1 with Shimizu S-Pulse on Sunday in a game played in an empty stadium as punishment for a racist "Japanese only" banner put up by hardline fans that deeply embarrassed the J-League.


Japan's Urawa play in empty stadium after racist sign

Urawa Red Diamonds captain Yuki Abe (8th L) delivers a speech in front of teammates, prior to their J-League match against Shimizu S-Pulse, at the Saitama 2002 stadiuim on March 23, 2014 - by Toshifumi Kitamura

League officials hit Japan's best-supported club with an unprecedented one-game supporter ban over the sign, written in English and hung over an entrance to the stands at a match on March 8.

An eerie atmosphere greeted the players at the 63,700-capacity Saitama Stadium - a 2002 World Cup semi-final venue - with advertising hoardings replaced by signs promoting the UN's Sports for Peace programme and entrance music cancelled.

"It was a difficult game to play in," said Urawa defender Tomoaki Makino. "The players were all motivated, but it was the little things like having no music before the game that made the difference."

S-Pulse striker Shun Nagasawa opened the scoring in the 19th minute before Urawa's Genki Haraguchi slammed home an equalizer in the 76th minute.

"As a player you want to play in Urawa at a World Cup stadium," said Shimizu's Dutch defender Calvin Jong-a-Pin.

"Normally the stadium is full and it's an incredible atmosphere so it's disappointing, but on the other hand I respect the decision that they made and sometimes you have to make a stand."

Fans heeded Urawa's warning not to gather outside the stadium, with the train station and park surrounding the ground virtually deserted in the hours before kick-off.

Security guards patrolled the area outside the stadium, which is usually bustling with fans and food and merchandise stalls on match days.

Urawa, the former J-League and Asian champions with an average home gate of more than 37,000 last season, have been punished several times in the past for fan misbehaviour.

Fans brawled with rival supporters and then penned them inside the stadium in 2008, and the club was fined $50,000 in 2010 over racist abuse yelled at Vegalta Sendai's overseas players.

"Urawa Reds have to start again from scratch," said Urawa president Keizo Fuchita. "First of all we have to strive to improve the culture and awareness of our club.

"We will drastically improve our match-day management and make the stadium a place for people of all ages to enjoy sport in comfort."

Urawa have barred fans from displaying banners and flags indefinitely at home and away games.

The club has also indefinitely locked out all members of the supporters' group responsible for the banner, and promised root-and-branch reform to stamp out crowd trouble.

S-Pulse's American-Iranian manager Afshin Ghotbi, himself the target of racist abuse when Jubilo Iwata fans held up a banner telling him to "stop making nuclear bombs" in 2011, urged everyone in Japanese football to learn from the experience.

"Racism doesn't have a passport and it doesn't have a nationality," said Ghotbi. "We have a beautiful game and a beautiful game doesn't have a colour.

"When I started playing football, the ball was black and white. Now every ball has a lot of different colours."

Elsewhere in the J-League, Diego Forlan scored his first league goal as Cerezo Osaka beat previously flawless Kashima Antlers 2-0, while Yokohama F Marinos' perfect start to the season also fell in a 1-0 defeat to Ventforet Kofu.

Champions Sanfrecce Hiroshima were held 1-1 by Gamba Osaka, Omiya Ardija thrashed Vegalta Sendai 4-0, and Albirex Niigata beat Sagan Tosu 1-0.

Kashiwa Reysol kept promoted Tokushima Vortis pointless with a 2-0 win, and Nagoya Grampus beat Vissel Kobe 2-1.

Latest Photo Galleries on xinmsn