24 February ~ The first anniversary of the Great Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami is on March 11. With an eye on that date, Japan's J-League have delayed the start of the forthcoming J1 season by a week. The two clubs most affected by the catastrophe, Vegalta Sendai and Kashima Antlers, will play each other on March 10, when the country's football community will pay its respects to those who lost their lives in Tohoku. One round of the 2011 J-League season had been played when the tsunami struck Japan's north-eastern coast and a series of earthquakes hit central and northern parts of the country. Damage was reported at a large number of stadiums, the most serious being at Sendai, Kashima and J2 side Mito Hollyhock.
The J-League's two divisions eventually restarted on April 23. Vegalta, never normally more than also-rans, were able to draw strength from adversity. Suddenly everyone's second-favourite team, they were among the early-season leaders, alongside another couple of surprise packages, Sanfrecce Hiroshima and newly-promoted Kashiwa Reysol.
As the season progressed, comparative minnows Kashiwa Reysol proceeded to confound commentators and fans alike with a series of exciting performances inspired by attacking midfielder Leandro Domingues, whereas many bigger teams struggled to keep their form. Nagoya Grampus couldn't make up their sluggish start and eventually ended the year in second, and Urawa Reds spent a proportion of the season in the relegation zone.
Japan's most successful club, Kashima, won a stripped-down version of the J1-only Nabisco Cup but were mediocre in the league. Their longstanding coach Oswaldo de Oliveira subsequently left to take over at Botafogo. Down Osaka way, Akira Nishino's failure to solve the problem of the dodgy Gamba defence meant that they finished no higher than third.
In contrast, Vegalta's rigorously organised backline led them to a best-ever fourth-place final position and Kashiwa also maintained their impressive form. In the final round in early December Reysol completed a sensational double of J2 and J1 titles in successive years, wrapping things up with a comfortable 3-1 win over Urawa.
Even then the surprises characteristic of Japan's club game were not over. In a thrilling all-second tier final with Kyoto Sanga, the Emperor's Cup final was won on New Year's Day by J2 champions FC Tokyo. The capital's biggest club will take their place back in the top tier for the 2012 season. But on March 10 at least, every football fan in Japan will be supporting Vegalta. Mike Innes , Go! Go! Omiya Ardija