Later on this morning, the roof will most likely be lifted off the FIFA Club World Cup when Urawa Red Diamonds make their entrance into the tournament against Iran’s Sepahan at the Toyota Stadium. In a rare sensible move from FIFA, the decision has been made to allow a team from the host country to enter into the competition, although, somewhat ironically, Urawa saved FIFA a lot of hassle by winning the AFL Champions League anyway. It would be easy to sit back and write Urawa off, but this is no team of amateurs. Based in Saitama, a city of 1.2m people just to the north of Tokyo, they are one of Japan’s best supported teams, with average home crowds of 45,000. In a recent pre-season tournament, they held Manchester United to a 2-2 draw. They may not have any players that are household names in the west, but only a fool would write off their chances completely.
On the pitch, since the formation of the J-League, they have had mixed fortunes. They were founder members of the league in 1993, but finished bottom of it for its first two seasons. As recently as 1999, they were releagated from the J-League, though they made a swift return to it the following season. They won the J-League for the first time in 2006. It was in 2006 that they held Manchester United to a draw, and they also beat Bayern Munich (with whom they have one of those “partnership” deals that look suspiciously like some sort of commercial imperialism to me) 1-0 in the same pre-season tournament. Last season, they were involved in an extraordinary finish to the J-League. With four matches to play, Urawa were seven points clear at the top of the table, but they failed to win any of their remaining matches of the season. On the penultimate day of the season, they lost 1-0 to Kashima Antlers, who won in spite of having two players sent off. This still meant that they would hang onto the 2007 title by their fingernails if they beat bottom of the table, already relegated, worst team in the history of the J-League, Yokohama FC on the last day of the season. Amazingly, they lost 1-0 and were overhauled by Kashima Antlers.
Consolation came in the form of the AFC Champions League (and it’s important to distinguish here that the Asian version of this competition doesn’t manage to arouse the same levels of interest in the media or amongst the fans as its European cousin does), as Urawa beat Sepahan 3-1 over two legs to become the first Japanese club to win the competition. Ironically, their domestic form fell to pieces after this win. It will be interesting to see which Urawa Red Diamonds team turns up for this tournament, but we can be more or less certain of one thing – if or when they score this morning, it might just lift the roof off the stadium.
Meanwhile, here are the highlights of the first two matches so far: