Football Is With You Japan

We all love football, but there are times when the harsh realities of life transcend this. As Japan attempts to come to terms with a devastating two weeks, the world of football shares her pain.  Here’s Alistair Hendrie.

Yuto Nagatomo could be forgiven for experiencing contrasting emotions right now. Last week, his Inter Milan side slipped into the Champions League quarter-finals by the skin of their teeth following a captivating 3-2 victory over Bayern Munich. After the match, the Japan international produced one of the most moving images in recent footballing memory. The influential substitute proudly held a Japan flag bearing the phrase “you’ll never walk alone”, the anthem belted out by fans of Nagatomo’s first side, FC Tokyo. Four days earlier, his country was devastated by a vicious earthquake and subsequent tsunami.

You have to admire the courage of Nagatomo.  In only his first year in Europe, he found the mental strength to play and help his side overcome Bayern. The 24-year-old described his side’s stunning victory as an “act of God”. He has a point. The winner from Goran Pandev came in a miraculous fashion, just two minutes from time. An emotional Nagatomo declared after the match “I think it was a message from God. It was a present for the Japanese people.”

FC Koln’s Japanese defender Tomoaki Makino shared Nagatomo’s undying spirit in the face of adversity.  After an equally poetic victory for his side – 4-0 against Hanover 96 – just hours after the disaster struck, Makino clinched an assist and revealed a message on his shirt reading “To all who are in the crisis areas, you can do it! Hang on, be daring. I hope that as many lives as possible can be saved.”

The pride and patriotism of Makino resonates wildly within this statement. He and Nagatomo have admirably used their recent exploits as outlets to encourage their compatriots. Both are living a dream career for many of their peers, playing in Europe in big leagues with lucrative contracts. But neither has forgotten where they came from and have identified with their countrymen at a time of deep trauma. Woflsburg’s Makoto Hasebe said: “My thoughts are with my fellow countrymen and women in Japan. I’ve searched directly to contact my family, who live 150km away from Tokyo. My family and friends are well.”

Football fans in England have sympathised with the situation and have leant a helping hand. Duncan Oldham, a Liverpool fan, has set up a Just Giving page at http://www.justgiving.com/koptalk-japan to raise money for victims. The Kop Talk forum had at first aimed to raise around £1,000, but have doubled that and the amount raised now stands at £2,189. Hull City had Red Cross collection points at their match with Norwich County last weekend, and elsewhere, SEGA are donating funds accumulated through Football Manager 2011 sales to the Red Cross.

Both UEFA and FIFA have followed suit and acknowledged the crippling situation in which over 9,000 lives have been cruelly lost. Before Inter’s match at the plush Allianz Arena on Tuesday, and every other quarter-final and Europa League tie last week, a minute’s silence was held. A statement of unity was illuminated on big screens in stadia. It read ‘With you, Japan’.

FIFA has also recently cancelled Japan’s international against Montenergro. Instead, a charity match with New Zealand later on March 29 will take place, raising money for charity projects following the tragedy. J-League fixtures were also put on hold, as football, and indeed Japan’s recent appearance in the World Cup second round, were propelled into a damning perspective.

Of course, the actions of Makino and Nagatomo show how much these saddening events touch everyone connected with Japan. Despite the glamour and money involved in football, it hasn’t escaped the stubborn grip of the disaster. Much of the Asian country has been stripped of its electricity, water and oil as a consequence of the events. The J-League is considering scrapping evening matches when competition returns in April, due to fears about overusing electricity on floodlights.

After the country’s Asian Cup success with a 1-0 victory over Australia in the final, Japan has been dealt a cruel dose of equilibrium. Football can bring joy to many people, arouse the most potent emotions, yet it is ultimately just a game. God only knows what Makino, Nagatomo and co must be feeling at the moment, living a superstar lifestyle whilst their beloved countrymen and women are struggling just for shelter, electricity, or searching for loved ones. Football is a wealthy, global behemoth, but it’s good to see that in less fortunate times, the sport recognises the sometimes unnoticed outside world of everyday real life. Football is with Japan.

You can follow Alistair on Twitter at @allyh84.  If you'd like to make a donation to the red cross to help victims of the Japanese Tsunami and Earthquake, you can do this directly here.

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