S-Pulse 1-4 Urawa Red Diamonds
Hiraoka 76 ----------------- Moriwaki 22
--------------------------------- Lee 28
--------------------------------- Makino 72
--------------------------------- Own goal 91
Ecopa Stadium, Fukuroi city
MF Takagi T
Takagi Y on for Mizutani (69)
Murata on for Honda (80)
With this result Urawa, the only team in Japan I know named after a shape, strode four points clear at the top of J1. On today's evidence, I can't see them relinquishing their lead. They were far from spectacular, but while we were disjointed and, aside from a lively opening 20 minutes, didn't trouble them, what they did they did well. They made fewer mistakes than most J. League teams, broke with pace and purpose, and defended their lead deep and well. Come December, if we don't see them adding to their 2006 J1 title I'll be one very surprised little Englishman.
As mentioned, we started brightly, and Novakovic should have opened the scoring around the 15 minute mark. Within 15 minutes of that chance, the visitors were two up, and we were reeling. The second half saw us all bluster and no end product, with possession generally progressing to the edge of the final third before a black shirt (not the ref, Urawa's bloody gorgeous away kit) intervened.
A 72nd minute Makino header off a corner put the game beyond us. At 3-0 there was still time for Hiraoka to snatch his own headed corner goal four minutes later, but the flurry of Shimizu attacks that followed rarely troubled Nishikawa. In stoppage time Aizawa fluffed a clearance to a black shirt and in the resulting mess the ball rebounded in off an orange shirt, and that really was game over.
Hopefully we'll look back on this game as a pivotal one in the Oenoki era. It lends stark contrast to the last game at Ecopa against Urawa under Hasegawa's charge. Just shy of 39000 were there, 20000 more than today, and we snatched victory in the most exhilarating of circumstances. Oenoki will take time to find his best XI, and there may be more bumps along the way until that happens. Today he was missing Jakovic through suspension and Jong-a-Pin through injury, which is half our defence right there. The 18 year old Mizutani worked hard, but it was a tall order for him to make the step up against the league leaders. What we need to do now is avoid defeat away next week, because another loss could see us in the relegation zone.
The Curious Case of The Perpetually Booing Fans
I mentioned something on Twitter which I'll elaborate on here, and that's Urawa's supporter culture. Until today I've always watched Shimizu Urawa match ups from behind the goal. If you've ever had the pleasure you'll know barely anything is audible over our joyous samba din. I now help with the S-Pulse English Twitter service, so am lucky enough to view matches from the press zone. Today I was located half way towards the away end, and WHAT. A. FUCKING. ROW.
The best thing about Urawa fans in their numbers. They've had the biggest traveling support for many years now. The worst thing is the booing and whistling. When they had the ball, they sang their hearts out. When we had it, and we had it a lot despite the result, a soul destroying caterwaul of jeering and whining oozed from the away end. This held true the full 94 minutes, even when at 4-1 up away from home you'd think they'd be reveling in their successful away day. Is it intended to break the spirit of the opposition? If it is, then it's ineffective. They've not won any domestic silverware since 2006, more than once coming off second best in winner-takes-all situations. Maybe that's precisely why the team with the biggest gates and deepest pockets have been consistently unable to make the most of those enviable resources; the simmering negativity and antagonism which infuses every game they play.
My background as a fan is in the lower leagues of English football, and there is absolutely no shortage of negativity there. But it's all shot through with a self-depreciating sense of humour, and like most any supporter culture, ultimately a premium is placed on supporting your own team over abusing the opposition. With Urawa it comes off, at best, 50/50. If that's what works for them, who am I to judge? What I will say though is upon my arrival in Japan I count my blessings I wasn't stationed in Saitama. Had I been, I might now be stood behind the goal spending as much energy taunting and heckling the visitors than supporting my own team. I don't doubt that would quickly become a pretty dreary way to watch football.
Which begs the question, why is a supporter culture so focused on the negative able to boast the biggest crowds in the country? The reasons for being the best supported club go way beyond this one particular custom, but in a country where every other team has fans which spend their effort supporting over haranguing, could it be that Urawa's uniquely toxic atmosphere actively attracts fans? Simply because it's the only club in the country, perhaps one of the only opportunities in Japan full stop, to encourage and revel in abusive behaviour? Urawa may be cannily tapping into a human instinct oft suppressed in Japan - the occasional requirement to blow off some vitriolic steam.
Well, that's a whole sociological and psychological study right there, and maybe I'm just talking bollocks. After all, every Urawa fan I've spoken to has been a thoroughly nice chap/chappet. I stand by what I said, though. No amount of silverware (not that much in Urawa's case, anyway) could make up for stripping away the joy of singing and cheering and replacing it with bile and disdain game in, game out. I'd rather samba any day.