As Justin McCurry reports, one football club is playing a small role in helping north-east Japan recover from national tragedy

For weeks after the double natural disaster that devastated Japan’s Tohoku region on March 11, it looked as if the J-League season would be brought to a premature end for the first time in its 19-year history. The earthquake badly damaged grounds belonging to three clubs, while Vegalta Sendai were counting the cost in dead or missing supporters – victims of the ensuing tsunami.

As Japan struggled to cope with the aftermath of one of the worst disasters in its modern history, talk of how to complete a football fixture list seemed deeply inappropriate. “To be perfectly honest, we’re talking about life and death right now,” the league’s chairman, Kazumi Ohigashi, said. “We’re talking about securing water, fuel and food.” Officials suspended all fixtures and conceded they had no idea when they would resume.

J-League officials also questioned the wisdom of organising football matches when many places in the region were without power and water, and rolling electricity cuts were being planned for the tens of millions of residents of Greater Tokyo. At national level, friendlies in March against Montenegro and New Zealand were cancelled and Japan pulled out as the guest team in the Copa América in Argentina.

The prospects for an early resumption of the football calendar were then complicated by radiation leaks from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. Several teams cancelled training sessions amid concern for the players’ health, while two South American strikers, spooked by repeated seismic aftershocks, abruptly left Japan for good at the urging of worried relatives.

Vegalta players from western Japan – far from the disaster zone – retreated to their hometowns. Those that were left had to endure training sessions held dozens of miles from their own facilities, and life in team dormitories with no running water.

When Vegalta’s players regrouped in late March, their manager, Makoto Teguramori, took them to a hilltop overlooking Ishinomaki, where they looked down at what little of the town had been spared by the waves. The idea, Teguramori told a Japanese newspaper, was to remind them how lucky they were to be alive.

The club, which represents the biggest city in the Tohoku region, was hit hardest of all the J-League teams. Almost everyone connected with the team has in some way been affected by the disaster – the most obvious reminders are the empty reserved seats once occupied by dead or displaced supporters. Few signs of quake damage now remain in the city centre, but its eastern suburbs were hit by high waves and only a short drive away lie the ruins of dozens of coastal towns and villages that were swept away in minutes.

For football, the short-lived observance of national jishuku (self-restraint) officially ended in late March, when Japan played a J-League All-Stars team in a charity match in Osaka in front of 40,000 fans. Afterwards, Dragan Stojkovic, who coaches Nagoya Grampus 8, borrowed a term frequently trotted out by FIFA, but this time used it in its appropriate context: “I think the Japanese football family has given heart to the people of Japan. [The survivors] have to remember one thing: they will never be alone.”

On April 23, the J-League resumed after a six-week absence. Vegalta marked the resumption with a victory and, the following week, made an emotional return to their home ground, the Yurtec Stadium. The league’s five rounds of missed matches will be crammed into July and the next leg of the Nabisco Cup first round will take place later the same month.

Supporters are now looking to Vegalta to lift morale in the Tohoku region, where 100,000 are still living in shelters, but where some are daring to enjoy the ordinary pleasures the tsunami ripped from them with such unforgiving force. Vegalta are repaying their faith in kind. At the time of writing, they lie in second place in J1 and began their Nabisco Cup campaign in early June with a dramatic away win against the league leaders, Kashiwa Reysol.

Vegalta are unbeaten in their first eight matches of the league season, inspired, it seems, not just by the emotional ties the tragedy has helped them forge with their supporters, but by their new-found status as almost every neutral’s favourite team. But perhaps the strongest sign that the club has emerged from its darkest days is the return, among some fans, of more realistic expectations for the rest of the season.

“We love Vegalta,” says Yusuke Matsuo. “The players are obviously doing their best for us, and they’ve helped supporters deal with the trauma of the disaster. But they can’t possibly keep this up. I expect things to start falling apart in the summer. As long as we qualify for the Asian Champions League, I’ll be happy.”

From WSC 293 July 2011

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