Japan's biggest side are struggling...
“The situation we face is very tough” was coach Takafumi Hori’s understated assessment after last week's 3-0 home loss to Jubilo Iwata left his Urawa Reds side two points above the final relegation place with just three games of the J1 season left to play.
After coaching the club's youth sides for seven years, Hori was elevated to the top job when Zeljko Petrovic’s departed last month after less than a season in charge, since presiding over an impressive win at Yokohama Marinos and a turgid J-League Cup defeat to old rivals Kashima Antlers in the Reds’ first appearance in a major final since winning the 2007 Asian Champions League. It`s a situation that was never expected to happen to Japan’s best supported club. In December 2006, when World Cup winner Guido Buchwald resigned two days after his team lifted their first J-League title, Urawa had reached domestic cup finals in each of the five preceding seasons. The following year, Holger Osieck, assistant to Franz Beckenbauer when Buchwald and West Germany won the 1990 World Cup, coached a line-up which included the prolific Brazilian forward Washington, current Leicester City midfielder Yuki Abe and experienced Japan internationals Shinji Ono, Marcus Tulio Tanaka and Alessandro Santos to a 3-1 aggregate win over Iranian side Sepahan in the ACL final. Osieck, now coaching the Australian national team, would have added a second title if it hadn't been for a spectacular late season collapse. Needing just one win from their final four games, Osieck's star-studded team drew with Kawasaki Frontale and Shimizu S-Pulse before losing 1-0 to nine-man Kashima and a Yokohama FC side that had won only three of their previous thirty-three league games. It was a costly lapse for Osieck, sacked after losing both his opening games in the following season, and a blow from which the club are yet to fully recover.
None of Osieck's successors have lasted very long. Gert Engels took Urawa to the semi-final of the Asian Champions League and to within a point of first place with three games of the 2008 season to play. A 2-1 home defeat by Shimizu, with Freiburg coach Volker Finke an interested spectator, was followed by a 1-0 loss at Gamba Osaka and a 6-1 spanking by Yokohama Marinos as the Reds slipped back to seventh. "I confronted the club and they said it was nothing," Engels said of Finke's arrival. "The first time they denied it. Then they didn't lie but they didn't confirm it." Finke blooded teenagers Genki Haraguchi and Naoki Yamada, briefly taking the club to the top of the table before a midseason run of seven straight losses left them in sixth. A disaffected Tanaka joined Alessandro Santos at Nagoya Grampus complaining that "I can't wait around three years for players to mature. They don't buy any new players. That's not how you win titles." Both men showed they knew how to do just that, Tanaka playing a pivotal role as Grampus won last season's J-League. Urawa finished tenth, and Finke was gone.
President Mitsuo Hashimoto turned to Zeljko Petrovic, an ex-Reds player who was assisting Avram Grant at West Ham United, to arrest the club's three-year decline, but a 3-0 home win over defending champions Nagoya was the only bright spot in a tsunami-affected start to the season which saw Urawa win just one of their opening eight games. “Petrovic came not knowing much about the J-League,” midfielder Naoki Yamada told the Japan Times. “He wanted us to play the way they do in Holland.”
With a young team struggling to adapt to his preferred 4-3-3 formation, Petrovic's side scored only 31 goals in the 29 league games he survived. Although 20-year-old winger Haraguchi has continued to impress, top scoring with nine goals and earning a recent call-up to the national squad, star signings Ranko Despotovic, a Serbia international who cost €700,000 from Spanish side Gerona, and the Brazilians Mazola and Márcio Richardes have been dismal failures, merely underlining the lack of adequate replacements for departed players such as former Wolfsburg and Leverkusen midfielder Robson Ponte, Santos, Tanaka and their fellow Japan national team players Makoto Hasebe and Hajime Hosogai, both now in the Bundesliga. More worryingly, average attendances have continued to fall, from a league-high average of 47,000 in 2008 to a little over 32,500 this season, as fans voice their growing dissatisfaction with both the quality of football and the wider running of the club. Backed by Mitsubishi but increasingly reliant on ticket revenue, Urawa announced losses of more than $3 million last year. The financial repercussions of relegation are unthinkable.
Without a win in eight games before the victory in Yokohama, Urawa and Hori have a home game with fifth-placed Vegalta Sendai, a trip to already relegated Avispa Fukuoka and the final day visit of Kashiwa Reysol - top of the league by a point and chasing their first ever title – remaining as they try to hold off Ventforet Kofu and avoid only the second relegation in the club’s stellar history. “With implacable determination to win, we will do our best to remain in the J1 no matter what,” Hashimoto recently said, but many among Urawa’s increasingly despondent supporters are already resigned to their fate.