The ascent of Urawa Red Diamonds has been a mirror image of the rise of professional football in Japan, a development from modest roots to respectability. Once considered J.League makeweights, they surpassed expectations to win the AFC Champions League 2007 and, thereafter, give AC Milan a genuine fright in their FIFA Club World Cup semi-final later that year. FIFA.com takes a look at the Asian Red Devils, a club indebted to local passion and German influence.
Birth of an institution
Founded as Mitsubishi Football Club in 1950, they enjoyed modest success as a company team in the amateur days of the Japanese game. The name Urawa Red Diamonds was adopted in 1992, when the Saitama prefectural government enticed them to represent the area in the J.League, which was due to start the following year. 'Reds' prompted them to use a red kit, while 'Diamonds' was a symbol of the sparkle and bond the club's owners demanded.
Takaji Mori, who coached Japan during qualifying for the 1986 FIFA World Cup Mexico™, assumed the side's reins for the J.League kick-off. They were based in the city of Urawa, and have now amalgamated into the city of Saitama. The area is known for having extremely passionate fans, and the promise of professional football created great anticipation there in 1993.
The J.League's popularity swiftly exploded and today, many view it as the strongest championship in Asia, something backed up by the fact it has 18 teams and a strong feeder division. Urawa are the most popular of all these sides, with 60,000-plus supporters regularly packing out the Saitama Stadium, their home since 2002.
It has not, however, always been plain sailing for the Reds. In their first few seasons, they struggled to make an impact, a seemingly permanent fixture at the bottom of the J.League. They did, during this period, nevertheless work hard in the background to plant the foundations for future success.
Urawa cast their net beyond Japan in search of inspiration, and they found it in Germany. Two former internationals, Guido Buchwald and Uwe Bein, joined the Reds in 1994 but, perhaps, even more significant was the arrival of coach Holger Osieck the following year. His leadership, together with a solid, Buchwald-tutored defence, Bein's creativity in midfield, and the J.League's top scorer Masahiro Fukuda, helped them take third place in the first stage of the 1995 season and eighth in the second, which earned them a fourth-placed overall finish.
The departures of Bein and Buchwald, in 1996 and 1997 respectively, prompted a decline in their fortunes, however; one which culminated in their relegation into the Japanese second tier in 1999.
Making of a legend
Urawa's fortunes were transformed by a crop of talented youngsters, especially playmaker Shinji Ono. His brilliance was central to them achieving promotion at the first time of asking. Ono left for Feyenoord midway through the 2001 season, but Emerson swiftly assumed his hero's status and propelled the Reds towards their current golden period. The Brazilian topped the scoring charts in 2003, and went on to score 71 goals in his 100 top-flight appearances for the club.
The appointment of Dutch coach Hans Ooft in 2002 proved to be a positive step, and he led them to Nabisco Cup glory in 2003, but the return of Buchwald was to inspire more prestigious honours. With their former defender now in the dugout, and Brazilian Robson Ponte immaculately pulling the creative strings, Urawa won the first of back-to-back Emperor's Cups in 2005 and their first J.League title in 2006.
This triumph was also indebted to the prolificacy of striker Washington, and with a crop of impressive Japanese players complimenting the Brazilian luminaries, the Reds beat Iran's Sepahan in the Champions League 2007 final, booking a trip to the FIFA Club World Cup in the process. There, now under the guidance of another German, Holger Osieck, they finished third and, as their 1-0 defeat by Milan showed, proved themselves a match for the world's finest teams.
The Saitama Stadium, which holds 63,700, was built exclusively for football in 2001, in time to host matches at the 2002 FIFA World Cup Korea/Japan. The first game held at the stadium was an official J.League game between Urawa and Yokohama F. Marinos, attended by 60,553. The Japanese national team regularly play there.