Japan’s Urawa Red Diamonds were ordered to play their next home game in front of an empty stadium yesterday in an unprecedented punishment after fans hoisted a racist “Japanese only” banner.
J-League chairman Mitsuru Murai said the body was imposing the heavy punishment after an investigation indicated severe damage to the image of Japanese soccer.
Pictures of the large sign, written in English and displayed near a gate at Urawa’s home stadium in Saitama, had circulated widely on social media.
“The social impact has been more serious than anyone could imagine, and it is clear that it has greatly damaged the brand image of the J-League and Japan’s entire football sector,” Murai said in a statement.
He added that the 2007 Asian champions, who have a large and passionate fan base, bear “great responsibility” after being punished in the past for racist chants from their supporters.
Many observers of Japanese soccer have speculated that the sign targeted South Korean-born striker Tadanari Lee, a new signing this season.
Lee also holds Japanese citizenship.
Urawa, whose March 23 game against Shimizu S-Pulse will now be played behind closed doors, said three fans suspected of hoisting the banner had been banned “indefinitely” from matches.
“Urawa deeply apologizes for all concerned because the club, even if it is in a place to eradicate discrimination, has allowed this serious incident to happen,” a statement from the club said.
Deep-seated ill-feeling between Japan and South Korea was previously highlighted on the soccer pitch at the 2012 London Olympics.
After South Korea beat Japan to win the bronze medal, South Korea’s Park Jong-woo waved a sign referring to a territorial dispute between the two countries, earning a two-match suspension.