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Asia Feature: Irony On The Terraces As J-League Supporters Collide

I have seen derbies in London, Milan, Turin and Berlin. And last week I saw one in Osaka that was lacking nothing of the sort of excitement of the games I saw in Europe.

Banpaku Stadium was packed, the stands colored in blue and pink. The Gamba Osaka and Cerezo Osaka players gave everything they had and there were five goals, one red card, plenty of controversy, teasing and a few mild insults.

Gamba won 3-2 and as match-winner “Michi” Yasuda held the microphone during the ritual 'hero interview,' he made it clear that “[...] this year [besides Gamba] there is another Osaka team in J1, and we [the Gamba players] wanted to show which one is the best!” The crowd erupted, possibly cheering louder than when Yasuda actually scored.

Before the game, Gamba supporters had already made sure their crosstown rivals knew who ruled in Osaka; as the players entered the field, four 10-meter tall flags were lifted behind a goal, depicting the home team’s trophies: the J.League Shield, the Nabisco League Cup, the Emperor’s Cup and the Asian Champions League. They were  immediately followed by a huge banner asking: “WHAT YOU GOT?”

Cerezo, still to win a trophy, was also derided by t-shirts celebrating December 3, 2005: the day they lost the title in the last minute of the last game of the season... to Gamba.

More banners, hung outside the stadium, read “200% Anti-Pink,” “Cerezo is the team I hate the most,” and “Pigs’ Slaughter Festival.”

Terrace tease | Gamba fans issue a friendly reminder

Ironic and even mildly offensive banners are not new in Japanese stadiums but are becoming more common and receiving more media attention.

One made it into major news two weeks ago, as the Urawa Reds' chairman apologized for his club’s supporters inviting struggling FC Tokyo fans to “Enjoy the first derby [vs Tokyo Verdy] in the second division [next season]”.

Back to Osaka, there was some malice on the field as well, as Gamba’s center-back Sota Nakazawa managed to irritate his naïve Brazilian opponent Adriano enough to cause his sending off. As the referee issued a somewhat severe red card, Nakazawa clenched his fists to his supporters - mission accomplished.

As in the case of the banners, some neutral supporters and media representatives shook their heads at Nakazawa.

But I wonder if it is realistic to demand the J-League catch up to its European counterparts whilst retaining the same picnic atmosphere it had in the mid 90s.

The derby in Osaka was an extremely exciting game to watch, also because of the tension created by the expectations of the supporters.

Cerezo’s stirring comeback after going down 2-0, Yasuda’s intense celebration after the winning goal and the final nerve-wrecking minutes were all part of a narrative that would have probably never unfolded without the win-at-all-costs atmosphere that permeated at Banpaku.

Without advocating more hysteria and trickery on the stands and on the pitch, it seems clear that as Japanese football culture matures, it will have to adapt some of the characteristics of the game in other parts of the world, including more teasing from the terraces and simulation on the field.

Atmosphere | No longer just a "picnic" atmosphere

With a notable exception during the Urawa Reds-Gamba Osaka game back in May 2008 that saw one seriously injured, Japanese supporters have distinguished themselves for their overall sporting behavior outside the stadium. Even when rivalry is intense, it is perfectly normal to see supporters of different clubs sharing the same carriage on trains on their way to games, usually ignoring each other but sometimes even fraternizing.

The J.League and its clubs have so far done a good job in keeping hooliganism at bay, applying a zero-tolerance policy.

Here’s one example from the past season: after the Omiya Ardija-JEF United Chiba match, a traveling supporter hit a rival with a flag stick outside the stadium. He was immediately banned for life from any Japanese stadium. This season, Kyoto Sanga FC "invited” a whole supporters club of 33 people not to follow the team anymore due to repeated minor disturbances inside the stadium.

One hopes that there will be no need for such measures in the future; Japanese stadiums ought to remain places where one can still enjoy the game with the family.

At the same time, rivalries will naturally become more intense as club histories and cultures develop.

The league, the clubs and supporters simply need to use common sense in facilitating that development.

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