Ignore the naysayers who call it uncool, the home of Urawa Reds is one of the best places in the country to watch football
Date: Wednesday, March 14th, 2018
Location: Saitama City
Venue: Saitama Stadium 2002
Match: Urawa Reds versus Gamba Osaka (Levain Cup, Group C)
Saitama has an image problem. It’s not a trendy place. Tell someone that you live in Saitama and they’ll tell you ‘that’s nice’, while betraying their words with a condescending smile.
It’s often dubbed Dasaitama, a play on the Japanese word dasai, meaning uncool. The tourists who throng Tokyo’s major attractions don’t take the train 30 minutes north to see Saitama. This is suburbia. You live here if you work in the capital and want to save money. It’s not a lifestyle choice.
But let’s not completely write-off Saitama. Kawagoe, a town of streets lined by Edo-era buildings is pretty. And if you like trains – and who doesn’t? – then The Railway Museum in Omiya is a good day out.
Really, though, there’s only one show in town when it comes to Saitama. One major reason to squeeze on to the commuter-packed trains that crawl out of Tokyo every evening.
And that’s football.
Saitama City is home to two J-League clubs. Omiya Ardija play in J-League 2, while the city’s other team is a behemoth of Japanese football. They’re the country’s best-supported club and one of its most successful. And that’s who I’m in Saitama to see play.
Urawa Red Diamonds are a big deal here. Their flags flutter from houses on quiet suburban streets. Posters of the team’s biggest stars fill shop windows. The team’s landmark results are carved into the streets.
So Saitama is red. And football mad. This a place that loves the game. So much so that they’ve even designed the manhole covers to look like footballs.
And we haven’t even got to the stadium yet.
World Cup legacy
In 2002, Japan co-hosted the World Cup with South Korea. And the legacy of that tournament lives on, nowhere more so than in Saitama. Urawa Reds play in the Saitama Stadium 2002, which was built for the competition. England and Sweden drew 1-1 here in their Group F match, while Brazil later dispatched Turkey 1-0 at the stadium to reach the final.
On the 15-minute walk from Urawa-Misono station, down a wide avenue adorned with Reds flags, supportive messages and photographs of momentous occasions, it’s possible to catch glimpses through the trees of the stadium’s two giant wing-like roofs. For sell-outs, when 63,700 fans can pack into the arena, the atmosphere along this journey to the stadium must be incredible.
But today is not going to be a full house. It’s a Levain Cup game, a competition that doesn’t draw in the big crowds, especially not during these early group stage matches. Yet it’s a perfect evening for some football. Saitama is basking in warm springtime sun as I slowly walk towards the ground. Any chills remaining from the previous week’s match in frigid Sendai are melting away.
There are still three hours until kick-off, and only a sparse gaggle of supporters are making their way along the street. Red shirts dominate, but dark blues can be seen here and there. And it’s those blue-shirted opponents who will make this game interesting.
An unlikely rivalry
There are the best part of 400 miles between Saitama City and Osaka. But hatred knows no boundaries. No distance is too far for a rivalry to fester and grow. And so it is that Urawa Reds from the east of Japan and Gamba Osaka from the west immensely dislike each other.
As two of the J-League’s biggest teams, the pair have had numerous run-ins, which has built intense animosity. The most famous battle between the teams occurred in 2005 and culminated in a truly remarkable final round of games.
Going into the last match of the season, five teams could still win the league: Cerezo Osaka, JEF United Chiba, Kashima Antlers, Urawa Reds and Gamba Osaka. Cerezo ended up finishing fifth after a 2-2 draw with FC Tokyo. JEF United beat Nagoya Grampus 2-1, which left them in fourth. Kashima Antlers put four without reply past Kashiwa Reysol, yet still only finished third. How about Urawa? They won 4-0 at Albirex Niigata. Surely enough to be crowned champions? Nope. Gamba Osaka recorded a 4-2 victory at Kawasaki Frontale to win the title by one point. It was their first championship in the J-League era.
Urawa didn’t have to wait long for their maiden title, finishing at the top of the pack one year later, while Gamba slipped to third. The next race between the pair was for a second title, and it came in 2014, once again in dramatic style.
After the penultimate round of league games, Gamba and Urawa were locked together at the top of the table, both on 62 points, separated only by goal difference. On the final day, Gamba were failing to break down already relegated Tokushima Vortis in a goalless stalemate. Urawa, meanwhile, were 1-0 up at home to mid-table Nagoya Grampus, who had nothing to play for. Then disaster for Urawa. Yusuke Muta drew Nagoya level in the 72nd minute. The title was going back to Gamba, unless Urawa could retake the lead, or Tokushima could score. And one more goal was to come. In the 89th minute. But it wasn’t in the match between Tokushima and Gamba. And it wasn’t for Urawa. Nagoya’s Kensuke Nagai struck, hammering the final nail into Urawa’s title challenge.
Welcome to Wonderland
There’s plenty of time for contemplation on the walk to the stadium. And the anticipation builds with each fresh view of the stadium. After following the railway line, crossing a road and skirting around some houses, the venue is visible in all its glory, shining in the late afternoon sun.
At the entrance to the stadium park, supporters walk under a banner with a simple message.
Welcome to Reds Wonderland.
So this is it. Supporters are milling around the huge plaza in front of the stadium. There is a row of food trucks lined up, providing beer and snacks for the early arrivers who are basking in the sun on white plastic furniture.
Everyone is wearing red. I scan the vast space, looking for blue shirts. Where are they? I take a walk around the corner, where I see a long line of people sat on the ground up against the stadium fence. They’re all wearing blue.
The Gamba ultras are out in force and queuing up for the best spots in the unreserved away section. Armed with banners and flags, plus snacks to sustain themselves during the wait, they’re readying themselves for a game that always matters.
Before I go on any further, a bit of a disclaimer. I live in Saitama City. Every day of my life I see Urawa Reds flags flying. I walk past the posters of their players. I cross streets engraved with their results.
But I don’t like Urawa Reds. I’m not a Gamba fan, either. It’ll become clear who I support in later posts, but let’s not spoil the surprise. Let’s just say it somewhat jars to be constantly bombarded with images of the Reds, as if they’re the only team in Saitama City.
So I join the line of Gamba fans. We slowly file forward, edging towards the gate. I exit Reds Wonderland and enter an enclave of Osaka.
Battle of the ultras
There are just over 20,000 fans in attendance, which leaves swathes of empty seats in this vast venue. But there’s a spiky atmosphere that splits the air of this still March night.
Gamba’s lead ultra stands up, megaphone in hand. He turns to the faithful, his back to the pitch and the Urawa fans. A few motivational words draw polite applause. And then it begins. The Gamba fans are jumping in unison, clapping their hands, waving flags and chanting with perfect timing.
Looking out down the full length of the pitch, and the Reds fans are stirring behind the other goal. Huge flags are billowing in the gentle breeze and chants are starting up. It’s quiet at first, but builds from a murmur into something substantial. Simple, effective and full-voiced shouts ring out. The home team’s ultras create an imposing wall of red. The fans move as one, jumping up and down, constantly creating noise. There are still 30 minutes until kick-off.
It would be understandable if the Gamba fans were a little less than enthusiastic ahead of this game. It’s been a terrible start to the season. Three league defeats out of three have left them bottom of the table. And they lost their opening Levain Cup match 4-0 at home to Sanfrecce Hiroshima. But that’s not all. They haven’t won a competitive game since September 3, 2017. That was 192 days ago.
You can sense the glee from the Urawa fans; they seem to be revelling in the poor form of their rivals. The intensity of their chanting increases by the minute, and when the Gamba starting line-up is announced, boos ring out from around the stadium.
A crushing defeat
The sensible money is surely on an Urawa victory. My pre-match prediction is 3-1 to the hosts. But football doesn’t follow logic, as the Reds are about to find out.
Gamba don’t look good; they’re misplacing passes and snatching at chances. Urawa are much more comfortable and confident on the ball. Yet the opening goal isn’t theirs. It’s for the under-pressure visitors.
Jin Izumisawa breaks away from the centre, bursts forward to the edge of the box, from where he whips in a cross that’s stabbed home by Hwang Ui-Jo.
Urawa don’t look fazed, though. They continue with their slick movement and tidy passing. An equaliser looks imminent. Then Gamba score again.
Oh Jae-Suk swings in a deep cross from the right wing, which is met by Shun Nagasawa with a glancing header. It’s enough to give Gamba a 2-0 half-time lead.
Urawa come out for the second half swinging, but only ten minutes after the break they find themselves 3-0 down. Nagasawa heads in his second. Form has gone out of the window.
It’s not over, though, and with ten minutes to go, Urawa’s Kosuke Taketomi stumbles through the penalty area, falls down, yet still manages to flick the ball past the goalkeeper. Could Gamba crumble under the pressure of a late onslaught?
No. And the answer is delivered in resounding fashion by Keito Nakamura. From deep inside his own half, he spins around Urawa’s Tomoaki Makino, surges forward, toys with Yuki Abe on the edge of the area before calmly stroking the ball into the bottom right-hand corner of the goal.
Urawa have been humiliated at home by their rivals – a team that hadn’t won a game for six months. It would have been understandable if the fans had silently filed out of the stadium to the backdrop of gloating Gamba supporters. But they didn’t. They stayed until the end. Even ten minutes after the final whistle, the red wall of support behind the goal is there, still chanting, still flag waving. The Gamba fans, too, stay back to applaud their players.
Back to the suburbs
The warmth of the day has faded into a crisp springtime night by the time I join the slow-moving crowds exiting the stadium. We shuffle along the wide avenue, leaving the lights of the stadium behind as a distant glow in the suburban sky over this otherwise sleepy corner of Saitama.
I board the train at Urawa-Misono station, changing at Higashi-Kawaguchi, where chatty football fans and weary commuters jostle for space. My final train is quieter, with empty green seats dotted around the carriage. I slump into a free space and drift into a daze as the train rattles through deserted stations past dimly-lit apartment blocks.
Saitama isn’t very exciting. That’s fair to say. But on any given match day, a small corner of this humdrum city comes to life, powered by the enthusiasm of a passionate supporter base.
Dasaitama? Definitely not.