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September 20, 2017

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Japan's Urawa take point in empty stadium

SAITAMA, Japan -- The Urawa Red Diamonds drew 1-1 with Shimizu S-Pulse on Sunday in a game played in an empty stadium as punishment for a racist "Japanese only" banner put up by hardline fans that deeply embarrassed the J-League.

League officials hit Japan's best-supported 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 U.N.'s Sports for Peace program and entrance music cancelled.

"It was a difficult game to play in," said Urawa defender Tomoaki Makino. "The players were all motivated, but it was the little things like having no music before the game that made the difference."

S-Pulse striker Shun Nagasawa opened the scoring in the 19th minute before Urawa's Genki Haraguchi slammed home an equalizer in the 76th minute.

"As a player you want to play in Urawa at a World Cup stadium," said Shimizu's Dutch defender Calvin Jong-a-Pin.

"Normally the stadium is full and it's an incredible atmosphere so it's disappointing, but on the other hand I respect the decision that they made and sometimes you have to make a stand."

Fans heeded Urawa's warning not to gather outside the stadium, with the train station and park surrounding the ground virtually deserted in the hours before kick-off.

Security guards patrolled the area outside the stadium, which is usually bustling with fans and food and merchandise stalls on match days.

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 misbehavior.

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

"Urawa Reds have to start again from scratch," said Urawa president Keizo Fuchita. "First of all we have to strive to improve the culture and awareness of our club.

"We will drastically improve our match-day management and make the stadium a place for people of all ages to enjoy sport in comfort."

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