Urawa Red Diamonds – Puzzle almost completed
Urawa Red Diamonds were once the laughing stock of the J. League but they have turned their fortunes around, and as the reigning league champions, they have certainly had the last laugh.
Urawa Reds are now generally regarded as the most successful club in the J. League. The Saitama-based club completed the double last year, claiming the J. League championship and winning the Emperor’s Cup for the second straight year. In 2005, the club also collected the highest earnings of any J. League club in the 13-year-history of the professional league. The current J. League champions have not always been so successful though, so what exactly has made the difference and helped them become the leading club in Japan?
A few minutes before kick-off and Saitama Stadium 2002 falls to a sudden silence. Then, like a rumbling of the earth, a chorus of deep voices arises from the thousands of fans clad in red in the 60,000-seater stadium. As one, the voices of the men, women and children are so powerful as to overwhelm the cheers from the visiting team’s supporters. A crescendo of music then blares through the air to welcome the players of both teams to the pitch.
At the moment you know exactly where you are – the home of Urawa Reds. You feel a shiver of excitement at the power of the Reds fans and their expectations for the match about to get underway.
The short-but-impressive “opening show” is one of the things the club paid great attention to when they started their J. League career back in 1993. Everything – from the club mascot to the kit sponsor – is done to promote the good image of the Reds brand and to attract more fans.
“We want, and always have wanted, those who come to our stadium to experience our ?Reds Wonderland’ and enjoy the game. At the same time, we want to create an atmosphere that makes the opposition feel awkward playing at our home,” said Red’s president Mitsunori Fujiguchi.
For the fans, many of whom are from the local community, this has always been a major part of the club management policy.
When demand for tickets to J. League games sky-rocketed soon after the launch of the league, many other clubs changed the venue of their home games to a stadium with a bigger capacity such as the National Stadium in Tokyo in the hope of drawing more fans and increasing gate revenue. The Reds, however, stayed at home in the 10,000-capacity Komaba Stadium (since extended to 21,500).
The local community
One of the ten inaugural clubs in the J. League, the Reds came to Urawa from Chofu City to the west of Tokyo, where their predecessor, Mitsubishi Motors, a company team, were based during the old non-professional Japan Soccer League.
“We were still in the process of settling down in Urawa and thought it was significant for us to show the people where we were based. To do so, we thought we had to keep hosting our games at Komaba. You cannot expect to have a good development of your club without being rooted in your local community,” recalled Fujiguchi, who was in charge of match operations at the time.
Their efforts paid off and, coupled with the enthusiastic cheering style of their supporters at the stadium, the Reds drew more fans to their home games. Tickets were snapped up so quickly that the club had to introduce a waiting list and an advanced ticket sales system for their local fans.
For the club, their supporters and fans became the power behind the team. They put pressure on the opposition and support their team enthusiastically and, thanks to the gate revenue, the club had money to spend on good players and coaches for the team.
But things were not going quite so well on the pitch.
The Reds struggled badly and were even called “a burden to the J. League” after performing so poorly in the early days. Urawa finished bottom of the ten-team league in 1993 and then 12th out of 12 teams in 1994.
The arrival of German coach Holger Osieck saw a turnaround and the Reds finished in third place out of 14 teams in the firs stage of the 1995 season, and sixth out of 16 teams in the single-stage 1996.
Following the departure of Osieck, the Reds seemed to lack any solid long-term plans and once again their form dipped, culminating in relegation to Division Two in 2000.
Their fans and supporters never left them though, often traveling en masse to away games, and helped the team return to the top flight a year later. The other sides in the second division were also grateful to the Reds, as they saw improved gate revenue as a result of their fanatical support.
Relegation in 2000 also had a positive effect in the club’s offices. A review and study of their team-building vision resulted in new mid- and long-term blueprints to put in place a better structure for the future.
As a direct result, the Reds hired former Japan coach Hans Ooft in 2002 in an attempt to establish the backbone of the team, and the impact was immediate. The Dutchman brought the Reds their first ever piece of silverware, the J. League Nabisco Cup in 2003 while also guiding the team to a sixth-place finish out of 16 teams in Division One.
His successor, Guido Buchwald, built on that winning mentally and more silverware followed – the Emperor’s Cup in 2005 and 2006 as well as the J. League championship in 2006. Their success also opened the doors for players such as defender Marcus Tulio Tanaka, the 2006 J. League Player of the Year, to win a call-up to Ivica Osim’s Japan side.
The club added another piece to their puzzle in 2002, moving to their new home at Saitama Stadium, and building a new clubhouse at their training ground. These arrangements helped to dramatically change the team’s playing environment. In 2005, they also inked a business tie with Bayern Munich, with their eyes set on improving their standards – both on and off the field – to international level.
On 2 December 2006, they beat Gamba Osaka 3-2 in a front of a sold-out crowd of 62,241 spectators to claim the league title. Two weeks later, the players and coaches received a joyous welcome from a sea of 65,000 fans clad in red at a victory parade in Urawa.
“We are finally getting the results for all the hard work we have put in during the last ten years ot so,” said Fujiguchi. “But we are not satisfied with just being number one in Japan. We now want to, as a club, take on the best in Asia.”
As J. League champions, the Reds are moving on to next stage and will take part in the Asian Champions League this year. Osieck has returned to his old club and has said he wants to win in Asia and reach the FIFA Club World Cup.
And with their fanatical fans in tow, one thing is for sure: the Reds would not be thera alone.