Football: Urawa play in empty stadium after racist sign

Journalists and cameramen sit in the press tribune overlooking an empty Saitama 2002 Stadium where the Urawa Red Diamonds are playing against the Shimizu S-Pulse in their J-League football match in Saitama on March 23, 2014. Japan's best-supported cl
Journalists and cameramen sit in the press tribune overlooking an empty Saitama 2002 Stadium where the Urawa Red Diamonds are playing against the Shimizu S-Pulse in their J-League football match in Saitama on March 23, 2014. Japan's best-supported club Urawa Red Diamonds on Sunday, March 23, 2014 kicked off a game in an empty stadium as punishment for a racist "Japanese only" banner put up by hardline fans that deeply embarrassed the J-League. -- PHOTO: AFP

TOKYO (AFP) - Japan's best-supported club Urawa Red Diamonds on Sunday kicked off a game in an empty stadium as punishment for a racist "Japanese only" banner put up by hardline fans that deeply embarrassed the J-League.

Urawa's match against Shimizu S-Pulse began behind closed doors after league officials hit the club with an unprecedented one-game supporter ban over the sign, written in English and hung over an entrance to the stands at a match on March 8.

An eerie atmosphere greeted the players at the 63,700-capacity Saitama Stadium - a 2002 World Cup semi-final venue - with advertising hoardings replaced by signs promoting the United Nations' Sports for Peace programme and entrance music cancelled.

Fans heeded Urawa's warning not to gather outside the stadium. Security guards patrolled the area, which bustles with fans and food and merchandise stalls on match days.

Urawa captain Yuki Abe led his teammates - all wearing Sports for Peace shirts - onto the pitch after arriving at the stadium to deliver a pledge to combat racism.

"Urawa Reds, as a member of the football family, pledge to fully abide by Fifa's vow to stamp out racism, be it discrimination against race, skin colour, gender, language or religion or background, and will not tolerate any discriminatory or insulting language or behaviour," said the statement.

"We have the power to stamp out racism from sports and from society. Through the bonds that connect us through football, we pledge to fight racism."

Urawa president Keizo Fuchita has said the banner was a warning to foreign visitors to stay away from the hardcore supporters' "sacred ground" at the stadium.

Urawa, the former J-League and Asian champions with an average home gate of more than 37,000 last season, have been punished several times in the past for fan misbehaviour.

Fans brawled with rival supporters and then penned them inside the stadium in 2008, and the club was fined US$50,000 (S$63,700 at the current rate) in 2010 over racist abuse yelled at Vegalta Sendai's overseas players.

Urawa have indefinitely barred fans from displaying banners and flags at both home and away games.

The club also imposed an indefinite entry ban on all members of the supporters' group responsible for the banner, and promised thorough reforms to stamp out crowd trouble.

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