OPINION: “Sanfreds,” “Albireds,” and the death of Japanese football’s local identity

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If we are to believe what Japanese media have been reporting, Naoki Ishihara and Leo Silva will join in 2015. Although they’re not in their prime, both are still excellent players who have been performing consistently — exactly the kind of players Reds need to reinforce their roster.

For the players as well, it might be a positive change: they will surely receive higher wages, which is crucial at their age, they will get the chance to play international football in the AFC Champions league, and they will join what remains ’s most popular club, complete with a beautiful home stadium usually packed with very dedicated supporters.

They would also move from Hiroshima and Niigata to near Tokyo, both the heart of Japan and of Japanese football, increasing the opportunities to plan their “second career” after retirement. Last but not least, their agents will receive higher percentages and likely open new channels to conduct their business. From a professional standpoint, it all makes perfect sense.

But football is not only about logic and business decisions, and these potential moves risk a series of side effects that are related to the identity and culture of football clubs.

Ishihara would be the sixth former Sanfrecce player to transfer from Hiroshima to Urawa in the last five seasons, not including manager Mihalo Petrovic. Silva would be the third player from Albirex Niigata to move to Saitama stadium since 2011.

In other words, the 2015 Urawa Reds could field a team almost entirely composed with former Sanfrecce Hiroshima and Albirex Niigata players:

(Year joined and previous club in parentheses)
GK Nishikawa (2014, from Sanfrecce)
DF Moriwaki (2013, from Sanfrecce)
DF Nagata (2011, from Albirex)
DF Makino (2012, previously from Sanfrecce)
MF Kashiwagi (2010, from Sanfrecce)
MF Leo Silva (2015? from Albirex)
MF Ishihara (2015? from Sanfrecce)
MF Marcio Richardes (2011, from Albirex)
FW Lee (2014, previously from Sanfrecce)

Indeed, mass buyouts from club to club do happen around the world. Bayern Munich began their systematic dismantling of main rivals Borussia Dortmund by picking up Mario Goetze in 2013, followed by Robert Lewandowski in 2014, and it is no secret they have now set their eyes on Marco Reus.

In 1995, Juventus bought three Sampdoria players in a single move: Pietro Vierchowod, Attilio Lombardo and Vladimir Jugovic. A few seasons later, Juve also imported Parma’s defensive trio: goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon, and centre backs Lilian Thuram and Fabio Cannavaro.

In 2009, Jose Mourinho hand-picked Genoa’s two best players, Thiago Motta and Diego Milito, to reinforce his Inter and challenge the best in Europe in the Champions League.

There are however several differences between what happened in these examples and what’s going on with Urawa Reds.

First of all, there is a numeric difference: transfers of two or three players from a club to another actually do happen quite often, but in the case of the exodus from Hiroshima and Urawa we are up to six players plus the manager and his trusted translator.

Second, it’s important to point out that Juventus and Inter won the Champions League with their reinforcements. Reds have not won a title since 2007, meaning that in practice, the constant acquisitions from Sanfrecce and Albirex have not brought particularly good results on the pitch.

Take the examples of Tomoaki Makino (a former Sanfrecce player who joined Reds after a stint in Germany’s Koln) and Ryota Moriwaki. They have been regular starters at Reds, contributing to the improvement of the team and becoming very popular among the supporters.

However, the players who replaced them at Sanfrecce (Hiroshi Mizumoto and Tsukasa Shiotani) won four titles between 2012 and 2014 (two J1 championships and two Xerox Supercups). Makino is still title-less, while Moriwaki helped Sanfrecce conquer the 2012 .

Moreover, Makino and Moriwaki were both members of Japan’s national team under Zaccheroni, but new manager Javier Aguirre hasn’t called them yet, instead giving opportunities to Mizumoto and Shiotani.

But the biggest difference comes from the way that clubs and players are perceived in Japan. In Europe, most supporters have given in to the idea that professional football is by today a business. Players come and players go, sometimes they move to arch-rivals, and often there are no chances for the fans to even get to know them before they leave.

It is very different in Japan, where the concept of a “local” club also means that the supporters get to know their players in depth. They coddle them from a young age and develop a strong attachment to them not just as footballers, but also as people.

While in Europe a fan is lucky if he can even get a glimpse of their heroes outside the pitch, in Japan there are several opportunities to get closer to the players, which result in a most intense relationship between them and the supporters.

J-League home games feature fan-made banners with each player’s name hung across the stands, and every player – from the stars to the rookies – gets his own personalized chant.

But in the case of Sanfrecce Hiroshima, six of those banners had to be folded for good, and their corresponding chants no longer echo across Edion Stadium. It is impossible for most Sanfrecce supporters to not feel that their team has been sold off piecemeal.

At the same time, it must be strange for Urawa Reds supporters to see half of a rival team join their club, and equally frustrating to be mocked and called “Sanfreds” or “Albireds.”

As mentioned above, Urawa Reds are Japan’s best-supported side: their attendance is strong, they travel in great numbers to away games, and they are incredibly passionate about their club.

When their thousands of supporters chant ‘WE ARE REDS,’ whether home or away, it is always a magic moment that often prompts the rival supporters to go quiet. It’s as if they too are in awe of the mighty atmosphere generated by Reds supporters’ sense of belonging to their club.

But the question remains: what is the meaning of that “WE,” and can there still can be a full sense of identity if nine of your top players have come from just two other clubs in last five years?

I do not have an answer for that; as I wrote in the beginning, these acquisitions do make perfect sense in many ways. However, this “diaspora” from Sanfrecce to Reds is a unique case in the history of football, and it is worth considering its significance and ramifications.

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