SAITAMA, Japan (AP) — Saitama Stadium was eerily quiet Sunday as hosts Urawa Reds were forced to play behind closed doors due to racist behavior by some of their fans.
Under the stiffest punishment yet to be issued by the 20-year-old J-League, Urawa and Shimizu S-Pulse played Sunday's game before 63,000 empty seats. Other than a handful of journalists and security staff, the stadium was completely empty.
The harsh ruling came after a fan displayed a banner at Urawa's home stadium two weeks ago that bore the words "Japanese Only" written on it. The sign was put up at a stadium entrance but wasn't removed until after the March 8 game.
Shun Nagasawa scored in the 19th minute for Shimizu and Genki Haraguchi equalized after the break as the game ended in a 1-1 draw.
"To be honest, I didn't enjoy this game," Shimizu's Iranian-American coach Afshin Ghotbi said. "It didn't have fans, it didn't have a voice. The contest was good but poor at times because it didn't have the energy of the fans. I hope it's the last time to play before an empty stadium."
Urawa is one of the best supported clubs in Japan and had average attendance of more than 37,000 last season.
It was the first time in league history a match was played at an empty stadium. Urawa captain Yuki Abe read from a statement before the game, expressing the team's regret over the incident.
The team announced it will prohibit supporters from displaying signs and banners of any kind at all home games.
While most of Urawa's fans are well-behaved, the team does have a hard core group of supporters who have a reputation for unruly behavior.
In 2010, Urawa was fined $50,000 when some of its fans taunted foreign players of rival club Vegalta Sendai. Urawa fans were also involved in an incident when they refused to let fans of Shimizu leave the stadium after S-Pulse won a game against Reds.
Most teams in the J-League have several foreign players in their squads, but Urawa did not have a single foreigner in its lineup for Sunday's match. The team is coached by Serbia's Mihailo Petrovic.
"It was a very strange atmosphere," Petrovic said. "It was like a practice game and we couldn't find any rhythm. As the home team, It was a very difficult match for us."
In handing down the penalty, J-League chairman Mitsuru Murai said the acts "damaged the brand of not just the J-League, but of the entire Japanese football community."
Japan's conformist society has often been criticized at home and abroad for being less accepting of racial and ethnic diversity.
Ghotbi said he felt it's important not to judge Japan as a whole over the incident.
"Like many foreigners here I love Japan and the Japanese people," Ghotbi said. "Japanese people are kind and polite. If there are a few ignorant people in this country, let's teach them."