Editor’s note: Urawa Reds spent the past week basking in the global spotlight at the World Club Cup, but there’s more to Japanese football than them as Furtho explains in part one of a three part series looking at “Squirrel Nation”.
There’s half an hour to go before kick-off. Away behind one goal, a huddled group of fans dressed in orange strike up a chant, trying to ignore the torrential, sheeting rain and the fact that a good half of the seats around them are empty. Some of the soaked supporters wave home-made banners upon which they’ve painstakingly transcribed the names of their favourite players and, despite the unpromising conditions, they do a decent job of making some noise, creating an atmosphere and a sense of anticipation ahead of this, the first derby game of the 2007 season.
Their goal-shy team might not have much of a chance in the match ahead – recent results are hopelessly poor and the side are already in the relegation zone – but even so, the fans will do their best to encourage the players. This, after all, is why many of them wear orange replica shirts sporting the number twelve: collectively, they play the role of twelfth man and their job is to support the team all the way up to the final whistle. Who knows, maybe today there might be an incredible upset?
The response of the supporters in red behind the other goal – and indeed across most of the rest of the stadium, although they are nominally the away side – seems explicitly designed to crush any such optimism stone dead. It is a shattering, physical volume, coordinated by nominated leaders with military precision, drums and voices united in the absolute certainty that their team of choice are the strongest in the land.
For Urawa Reds were champions of Japan in 2006 and are top of the league again today. They have a fanbase that stretches far beyond their home in Saitama prefecture, from Hokkaido in the north to Kyushu in the south. They have the biggest budget and the best players and it is unthinkable that their diminutive near neighbours Omiya Ardija – the Squirrels, for God’s sake – might today be in with even a sniff of a chance of avoiding an absolute hammering.
The Reds fans have home-made flags, too. One of them shows a large cartoon fist coming down from the sky, like a Monty Python foot, to crush an Ardija logo. Another features a squirrel being tossed into a garbage can, while a third simply bears the legend OMIYA FUCK.
When Omiya’s mascot, a cheery seven-foot tall squirrel named Ardy, goes on a pre-match walkabout, the air is filled with catcalls, whistles and boos. As kick-off time approaches, the regimented noise from the Urawa followers becomes if anything yet more intense. The supporters wearing orange, meanwhile, continue to wave their banners and shake their umbrellas. You can see that they’re still singing as well. You just can’t hear them.
Let’s get the whole issue of the name out of the way first. Omiya itself is a small city in Saitama prefecture in central Japan and Ardija is a corruption of the Spanish word ‘ardilla’, which means ‘squirrel’, which is in turn a symbol of Omiya city. Expecting to understand Japanese football club names — Consadole Sapporo, say, or non-league outfit Renofa Yamaguchi — to any greater extent than that is like expecting to understand the deepest mysteries of the universe, so it’s best if you can just let it go there.
At least among the small pocket of foreign followers of teams in Japan’s professional league, the J-League, Omiya Ardija supporters have as a consequence of all this picked up the nickname of the Squirrel Nation. The passion which the Squirrel Nation feel for their diminutive club is something that has, as we shall see, grown greater than ever during the course of a tempestuous 2007, but in terms of the relationship with their near neighbours – the cities of Urawa and Omiya are a matter of only five miles apart – being regarded as playing second string is a pretty normal state of affairs for Ardija fans.
The fact of the matter is that Urawa are far and away the most popular club in Japan, never mind on their own patch, and as such provide a straightforward default option for any new supporter getting into the game and hunting round for a team to follow. Manchester United are now and always have been a clear model for the Reds, from the cultural omnipresence to the design of the uniforms; even their proper full name is Mitsubishi Urawa Football Club.
While Urawa can stage matches at the Saitama Stadium enormodome and turn it into a pulsating cauldron of noise populated by at least 40,000 followers chanting in tight unison, when Omiya play there they’re satisfied to pull in a quarter of that number. And while Urawa aspire to being part of world football’s upper echelons — they were thrilled at winning the Asian Champions League 2007, not particularly because it meant that they were better than other clubs in Asia, but more because it gave them an opportunity to match themselves up with top European and South American sides in the Club World Cup — Ardija operate under their noses at a local level, scrapping for every supporter they can get.
Perhaps not surprisingly, this means that the Squirrel Nation are a tightly-knit bunch, vociferous in their expression of the fact that there are most emphatically two teams in Saitama: a point consistently misunderstood by almost everyone who is not connected to the club. The mayor of Saitama City, for instance, making a speech at Omiya’s brand new stadium and clad in an ill-fitting orange shirt, misjudged his audience as only a local politician can when to a distinctly frosty response he referred in glowing terms to the Reds and their recent achievements.
Like almost all J-League teams, Omiya Ardija have their roots in the corporate football which blossomed across Japan in the 60s and 70s. While Urawa grew out of a Mitsubishi works side, Omiya’s origins lie in a local representative team of the NTT telecommunications giant. NTT Kanto played Regional League football before gaining promotion to the lower ranks of the Japan Soccer League, a nationwide competition populated by company teams like Toshiba and Yamaha.
During the 90s, however, Japanese club football was changed beyond all recognition by the establishment of the J-League and in 1999 NTT rode the wave of sides joining the ranks of the professionals by being among the founder members of the second tier, J2. The team name was changed in accordance with J-League policy that clubs abandon their corporate monikers completely and instead choose something that grounded them in their local community.
In their first few seasons in J2, Omiya Ardija were mainly stuck in mid-table alongside other small teams, such as Montedio Yamagata and Sagan Tosu. The Squirrels nevertheless had one significant asset at their disposal, in that they were able to use as their home stadium Omiya Park, which prior to the World Cup of 2002 was one of the few football-specific stadia in Japan. Built to stage the football tournament of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, the ground had a capacity of 12,000 and the lack of a running track gave it the kind of intimacy that meant a 5000 crowd for a night game was enough to create a piping hot atmosphere. Despite the fact that Ardija were really no more than J2 also-rans, their stadium quickly developed a reputation among J-League fans as one of the best places to watch football in the whole country.
Late in 2004, however, a major problem arose from an unexpected source: suddenly, Omiya got good. Squirrels coach Toshiya Miura in the final quarter of the lengthy J2 season somehow managed to coax a series of increasingly impressive performances from his squad and it was Ardija who emerged from the pack to move into second spot behind runaway leaders Kawasaki Frontale. In the end, Omiya notched up a remarkable thirteen-match winning streak to close out the year and thereby claim an incredible promotion.
Appropriately, the move up to J1 was finally confirmed at Omiya Park with a 3-1 defeat of Mito Hollyhock, after which players and fans celebrated together the club’s shock success. Tears streamed down the face of Japanese / American midfielder Jun Marques Davidson as he shook hands with Squirrels supporters: university students and high school girls, middle-aged salarymen, parents and little kids, all in their orange replica shirts. None of them could have dreamed that a tiny club like Ardija – boasting an average gate of barely 6000 – would fight their way to a place among the elite of the Japanese game, alongside even their Saitama rivals the Reds.
The Squirrels were subsequently allowed by league authorities to play a limited number of games there in the 2005 J1 season, but after a 1-0 win over Gamba Osaka in November of that year, the demolition men moved in and the stadium was completely knocked down. It was estimated that construction of its replacement on the same site would take two years. Just at the very point that they were trying to establish themselves in the top division, Ardija were homeless.