21 March ~ New Zealand's decision to pull out of their planned friendly with Japan on March 29 as a result of the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami is hugely disappointing. With Christchurch having recently been struck by a similar tragedy, a match between the two countries would have been the perfect occasion to commemorate the many lives lost and to raise huge funds for the recovery efforts of both disasters. There will still be a game on the day, although with New Zealand not coming and no other country willing or able to step in it will now be contested between the Japan national team and a J-League "Team as One".
While keeping the fixture in place is an important step to take, without a real opponent – particularly one as poignant as New Zealand – foreign media coverage and potential sponsorship will now certainly not be as extensive. A match that could have shown the world that both countries are fighting on will now likely be a largely internal affair for Japan.
The decision of the New Zealand football association (NZF) reflects the impact of the hyperbolic overseas coverage of the situation at Fukushima nuclear power station, with them suggesting that even assurances from the JFA about the safety of Osaka, to where the match has been moved from Tokyo, and discussions with government officials were outweighed by the effect of media reports.
An announcement on the association's website on Thursday read: "NZF reviewed this information from the JFA and the New Zealand Embassy but raised concerns about the timing of the match so close to the tragedies that Japan has suffered, and the possible health and safety risk to players, staff and management, as reported by the media."
The country has also pulled its Under-17 team out of the Sanix Cup in Fukuoka, with NZF chairman Frank van Hattum saying: "This has been a tough decision to make but with the match just two weeks away and media reports reflecting such great uncertainty surrounding the nuclear situation in Japan we believe it is prudent to err on the side of caution and withdraw our teams. At this time emotions are running extremely high in New Zealand, and sadly the decision to proceed with a football match in this context was not feasible."
Van Hattum continued: "We are extremely grateful for the understanding of the Japan Football Association in the process of taking this decision. Our hearts are with the people of Japan and everybody affected by the earthquake as they focus on this period of recovery. New Zealand Football will work as hard as possible with the Japan Football Association to examine the possibility of rescheduling the fixture for a future date."
It is very easy to offer your support and co-operation when everything has calmed down, but help and solidarity is required right now – something of which Ranko Popovic is acutely aware. The coach of Japan Football League side Machida Zelvia knows what it takes to work through tragedy, having been directly affected by the war in former Yugoslavia. . "I am Japanese now, I am part of this," he says. "If you are part of the good times you must also be part of the bad times too. We must give our maximum, mental and physical."
Popovic believes that it is correct that upcoming charity match goes ahead. "I know people have more important things to think about but it is important to get back to normal as quickly as possible, and football can help to do that," he explained. "Everybody is different, but I experienced the same in Serbia in the war – I lost my house – but playing gave me the power. Now we have to be a unit and all of the world is with Japan. Now we must work for the people who have lost their lives and those that are left behind. This is our message." Sean Carroll