After the "JAPANESE ONLY" banner which was hung, and left up for the whole game, at an entrance to Saitama Stadium's home end last weekend, we're set in for a new first for the J. League: a game to be played in an empty stadium.
The J. League, with speed that can only be applauded, moved more swiftly than anyone dared hope and punished Urawa for their failure once again to control their fans. The incident is the latest in a tiresome list of miserable, mean spirited behaviour by a small number of the Saitama team's fanbase.
After the banner went viral, all manner of explanations were touted as to its meaning. Seriously, though? Something like that, written in English, is fairly unambiguous. Let's be honest, it was nothing other than a hopeful attempt at apartheid in Saitama. Urawa most likely have the biggest number of foreign faces in any given J. League crowd, which makes it all the more daft. Since when did racist nut jobs have a coherent grasp of reality, though?
So long story short, our game in Saitama on March 23rd will be played inside an empty ground. All tickets will be refunded, along with travel/accommodation arrangements already made by fans. Urawa are being forced to foot this bill, and rightly so. It's not yet decided if fans will be allowed to congregate outside the ground, but, if you ask me, that would be asking for trouble. Given the desperate posturing of some Reds fans recently (fireworks set off at our team bus? seriously?) the police would have to be out in force to make sure that element didn't run riot, and I can't see anyone going for that.
This is a pretty huge deal for the J. League, and I'm glad the judgement came strongly and quickly, but the fact hundreds of Shimizu die hards will be missing a game is massively disappointing. Perhaps the logistics of allowing only away fans in was too much to organise, but there's a deep feeling of injustice among many of my Shimizu brothers and sisters. Not to mention of course the thirty-odd thousand blameless home supporters, but after years of, albeit a minority's, misbehavior, a line finally had to be drawn. I think the punishment is firm, fair and sends a loud and clear message.
The reverberations of this incident will continue to be felt. Urawa announced an overhaul of the way their supporters will be handled, and how they'll have to conduct and organise themselves. Not a moment too soon, either. As the best supported team in the country, for years they've been a consistent embarrassment to themselves. Most of them are totally fine of course, but those are the same people who let the offending flag hang over that entrance for the entire game. That is poor form.
That's my two cents, anyway. Maybe my favourite quote of the day came early from Dan Orlowitz: S-Pulse fans were locked in last year, locked out this. :-/