Urawa Red Diamonds have certainly sparkled in recent seasons, and will soon become the first Japanese club to play in the FIFA Club World Cup.
This victory was a culmination of a concerted effort by the club, fans, team, community and sponsors and has delighted Japanese football followers, who have dreamed for years of seeing a J. League club compete on the world stage.
Despite Urawa's sluggish start to the season, it is not by chance that the Reds have become so successful. They have the largest and most passionate support in Japan, setting a J. League aggregate attendance record of 774,749 during the 2006 season. Indeed, many of Urawa's ACL opponents have complained of having to play against 12 men when they visited the Reds' Saitama Stadium.
Urawa have a long-term vision both on and off the pitch. They play an active role in the community, run a public sports facility known as "Reds Land," and hold a range of events and activities aimed at educating and communicating with local children through football.
The long march to the ACL crown
The Reds, in their first appearance in the AFC Champions League, were pitted against 2005-06 Liga Indonesia champions Persik Kediri, 2005-06 A-League champions Sydney FC and 2006 Chinese Super League runners-up Shanghai Shenhua in the group stage.
Their campaign got off to a great start with a comfortable 3-0 home win over Persik Kediri, but an out-of-sorts strikeforce and a series of defensive mistakes saw them win just one and draw three of their next four games.
Needing a point at home in their final Group E game against Sydney FC, the Red Diamonds stood firm to hold the Australian champions 0-0 and take the only available spot for the knockout stage. Though the Urawa outfit had looked unconvincing at times, their dream of a domestic and continental double was still alive.
Fortunately, the club's management had foreseen the demands of competing on two fronts, and had set in place a gradual improvement plan. This strategy was designed to ensure the team's performances peaked after the summer break, in the lead-up to the season's November climax.
Having beaten defending champions Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors 2-1 at home in the first leg of the quarter finals, the Reds got through a potentially tricky away leg with a relatively comfortable 2-0 success.
They came up against Korean opposition once again at the semi-final stage, in the shape of 2006 K-League champions Seongnam Ilhwa. The advantage lay with the Saitama team after they grabbed two vital away goals in a 2-2 draw in the Korea Republic, but the Koreans fought back to level the aggregate scores during the second leg and send the tie to penalties. Hearts were in mouths but it was the Reds who brought the house down, winning the spot-kick lottery 5-3 to take their place in the final.
Despite their continuing ACL exertions, Urawa were able to maintain their fine run of form. In fact, the 2-2 draw against Seongnam Ilhwa in the semi-final first leg came on the back of six successive victories.
Awaiting the Reds in the two-legged final were 2006 Iranian Hazfi Cup winners Sepahan. The first game at the Foolad Shahr Stadium in Isafahan, Iran, was played at altitude and the Reds needed all their grit and determination to secure a positive 1-1 result. The 14 November second leg happened to coincide with the Saitama prefecture's "Residents Day" and brought a bumper crowd of nearly 60,000 people - each and every one thoroughly in the party spirit. Despite the Iranians setting their stall out to defend, Urawa cruised to a 2-0 victory and sent the fans into delirium.
The supporters themselves had an incredible part to play throughout the Reds' Asian adventure, and travelled in large numbers to away games in Australia, Indonesia, China PR, Korea Republic and Iran.
It is often said that the foundations of a successful side start at the back and, boasting four Japanese international regulars in Marcus Tulio Tanaka, Keisuke Tsuboi, Yuki Abe and Keita Suzuki, the Urawa Red Diamonds' defence is certainly packed full of talent.
Abe joined the Reds from JEF United Ichihara Chiba at the start of the season and is the epitome of a genuine utility player. Able to perform consistently well in any position across defence or midfield, he made a massive contribution to Urawa's ACL triumph and scored the clinching goal in the final.
Meanwhile, at the sharp end of the Urawa attack, two Brazilian sharpshooters have been grabbing the goals and the headlines. Robson Ponte fired an impressive four ACL goals to become the Reds' leading scorer in the competition, while fellow front-man Washington topped the J. league goalscoring charts last season.
Not to be forgotten are the contributions of home-grown forward Yuichiro Nagai, scorer of three goals and named ACL player of the tournament, and winger Nobuhisa Yamada, who continues to thrill the crowds with his storming runs down the right flank.
Other attacking options include Tatsuya Tanaka, who has not lost any of his speed or flair despite a long spell out through injury, and the creative genius that is midfielder Shinji Ono, who rejoined the Reds last season after six years in the Netherlands with Feyenoord.
Return of a German great
Charged with leading Urawa to a second successive J. league title and guiding them to a successful FIFA Club World Cup campaign is German manager Holger Osieck, who replaced countryman Guido Buchwald during pre-season.
Osieck first came to the aid of an ailing Urawa side languishing at the foot of the J. league table twelve years ago, turning the club around to claim respectable mid-table finishes in 1995 and 1996. He went on to coach Turkish outfit Kocaelispor and the Canada national team, before taking up a new role as head of the FIFA Technical Committee in 2004.
Osieck's philosophy is characterised by ensuring the team's foundation remains strong, bringing in new players to improve certain areas without making wholesale changes. While a tough taskmaster, he has been able to achieve consistently impressive results by keeping his players well-motivated - as demonstrated in their unbeaten run of five wins and seven draws on the way to ACL success.
The club was formed in 1950 in Kobe as the company team of Central Japan Heavy-Industries, becoming Mitsubishi Heavy Industries in 1952 when the company changed its name and moved to Tokyo in 1958.
They became one the founding members of the amateur Japan Soccer League in 1965 and enjoyed a golden era between the late 60s and early 80s, winning both the Division 1 title and the Emperor's Cup four times and the League Cup twice.
The club changed their name again to Mitsubishi Urawa FC upon going professional in 1992, and joined the J. League at its inception the following year. In 1996, the club finally settled on the name of Urawa Red Diamonds.
Despite relegation to the second tier of the J. League in 2000, the Reds bounced straight back up in the next campaign. Subsequent years brought their first successes as a professional outfit, the club winning the Nabisco Cup (League Cup) in 2003, the second stage of J. League 1 in 2004 (the final season of the two-stage league system) and the 2005 Emperor's Cup. They repeated their Cup success last season, and completed a historic double triumph by landing their first ever J. League crown.
Football only began to gain in popularity throughout Japan during the Taisho Period (1912-1926), but has had roots in Saitama since as early as 1908. Back then the sport was played at the elite Saitama Shihan teaching college and has long been popular in the area.
The team plays their home games in either the 21,500-capacity Komaba Stadium, or more commonly in recent years in the 63,700-capacity Saitama Stadium, which was completed in 2001 ahead of the 2002 FIFA World Cup Korea/Japan™.
The team's name comes from the three diamonds on Mitsubishi company logo, and the diamonds are said to "shine brilliantly with a hardness that cannot be scratched".
The club badge has several facets. The two primroses are the designated flower of the Saitama Prefecture, the building crowning the badge is that of the teaching college, the ball in the centre is said to be something for people to gather around and the swirls around it are said to show football's message spreading across the world.
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