Football-mad Saitama prepares for another fierce derby

The 13th Saitama derby in the football-mad region comes around this Saturday in Japan's J-League when Urawa Red Diamonds face Omiya Ardija

Saitama has long been one of the fertile grounds for soccer in Japan, especially if you are a supporter. Ask somebody about the J-League around these parts and you are most likely to get a response of "Urawa Reds". Mention "Omiya Ardija", and you are more likely to get a blank look. The responses are probably justified.

In their previous incarnation as Mitsubishi's company team in the the Japan Soccer League (the J-League predecessor), Urawa managed to claim four Emperors Cups and be a major title challenger for over a decade. When Mitsubishi decided to put a representative in the J-League, they focused on building a Saitama-focused fan base and modelled themselves on world football power Manchester United.

The peak for Urawa came between 2005 and 2007 when the squad managed to win two Emperor's Cup, a J-League title and an AFC Champions League title that grabbed headlines all over Japan and cemented the legend of the squad and their vociferous fan base.

Omiya had more humble beginnings, starting of in 1969 as NTT Kanto. A regular in the second tier of the JSL, NTT Kanto was labouring near the bottom when the decision was made to professionalise and enter a team in the newly formed J2 in 1998. After five seasons of hovering around midtable, Omiya went on a shock unbeaten run late in 2004 and claimed the second promotion spot for 2005.

Entering 2011, the team's highest rank was a very modest 12th. Compare national team records of the squad's two best players (both now at Shimizu S-Pulse). Shinji Ono managed to get 56 caps and three World Cups under his belt during his time at Urawa and Feyenoord in the Dutch League. Daigo Kobayashi made up the sum total of all Omiya player appearances on the Samurai Blue with his one appearance in a friendly in 2006.

Judging by the size and prestige of the clubs, it would be easy to assume that Urawa had the advantage in the six years the teams have faced off in J1. And you'd be right.....barely.

The quirky nature of the derby has seen the teams face off 12 times in J1, with Urawa claiming five wins and Omiya grabbing four. It hasn't mattered which has been in form or who had the better record, most of the matches have been very scrappy, hard fought battles.

One of the quirks in the derby has been that the games have been played in cavernous Saitama Stadium, Urawa's home ground (the teams squared off once in NACK in 2008 in torrential rain). Because NACK only holds 15,000 people, the team has opted in the past to give up the home field advantage and cash in on the voracity of Urawa fans to see their club as much as possible.

Urawa fans would show up in numbers, hold signs that likened Omiya to garbage and the smaller team would take it, taking comfort in the thought that they were competitive in the games and heavier in the pocketbook. All of that changed last year when Omiya was indicted by the league for inflating attendance numbers. The scandal broke during Urawa's 2-1 win over Omiya late last season. New boss Shigeru Suzuki opted not to use the facility again for Omiya home games.

ACL glory | Urawa were kings of Asia in 2007 but still lost the Saitama derby

For Omiya, the derby is the event of the season, and can make or break an entire year. An awful 2007 was lightened somewhat by a 1-0 win over the ACL champions.

Omiya had a dreary year in 2009, but a 3-0 victory near the end saved embattled coach Jang Woe Ryong for about six months before he got the Axe. Urawa has had some good memories of the derby as well, including a 6-2 slaughter in the 2009 edition of the Nabisco Cup and a 2005 Emperor's Cup semi-final, which saw the squad struggle for 120 minutes against an undermanned but game Omiya squad before claiming a victory and going on to a championship.

For their part, the fans of Urawa seem to have transitioned from polite condescention for their smaller prefectural counterpart to a genuine loathing....an impressive feat considering the amount of hate they have shown for numerous teams around the league.

Saturday marks the 13th installment of the Derby, hopefully like it's previous incarnations it will be exciting.

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