Courage Under Fire

Barry Valder reports on how Japanese football has responded to recent events.

It’s Shimizu S-Pulse’s first home game of 2011 and the football crazy fans of Shizuoka City eagerly anticipate their team’s entry onto Nihondaira’s perfectly kept surface. But in the early spring sunshine, something is missing. There are no pounding samba drums, no announcer bellowing over the loud speaker, and the customary roof-lifting roar is eerily absent. Three sides of the stadium sit surreally empty.

After a muted introduction, S-Pulse and Yokohama FC emerge to a warm round of applause which soon fades to silence. Both teams line up in the centre circle, and we stand and bow our heads in sombre remembrance of the tragedy which shattered the north east of the country.

Today’s match is a training ground practice game hastily rearranged to be held at S-Pulse’s home stadium. Entry is free but players from both teams man donation boxes at the ticket gates. Despite the event only being announced three days previously, over 5000 people pack the one opened stand, and the charity boxes are stuffed with notes.

The 2011 J. League season was just one game old when the earthquake and tsunami brought a halt to all major sporting events in the country. The scope of the disaster, which occurred on a Friday morning, was soon apparent and an evening announcement postponed all the weekend’s games. This was soon extended indefinitely.

S-Pulse’s opening home game with Kashima Antlers was set for a sell out but it was Kashima who were one of the teams hardest hit. Their stadium and training facilities received considerable damage and are unusable for the immediate future. It’s a situation common to other north eastern teams, in particular Vegalta Sendai. The team nearest to the epicentre, Sendai’s club house was destroyed and training grounds rendered unusable. Their Yurtec Stadium was also badly damaged.

Other teams are unaffected by physical damage but still have to face up to shortages in power and supplies. This, along with considerable difficulties in transportation and communications, are affecting areas such as Yamagata, home to Montedio Yamagata.

As the emergency operation was in full swing, J. League teams throughout the country began offering the use of facilities to those in need. Sendai have been offered the use of Kashiwa Reysol’s second stadium, and of Vissel Kobe’s training ground.

And the country’s football fans are right behind them. Fund raising games such as S-Pulse’s with Yokohama FC are no one off. It’s a situation mirrored up and down the country with many matches played and many more scheduled. From the Yokohama fixture alone, 2000000 yen was raised. Multiply these efforts over the J. League as a whole, and you have an idea of the scale of endeavours by the nation’s supporters. Before the season is due to resume, S-Pulse have three more charity games lined up, including a high profile fixture in Holland against Ajax.

A major recurring theme since March 11th is the unifying effect of adversity. The sharing of stadiums and training facilities is strengthening relationships and building new ones. Supporters of rival teams are standing shoulder to shoulder raising funds. Players nationwide have been donating their time to community events such as a free S-Pulse football workshop for Shizuoka children which raised over £2500.

When a J. League all star XI took on the Japanese national team on March 27th 50,000 supporters packed Osaka’s Nagai Stadium. It was the first major footballing event since the quake. One huge banner simply read: Football Saves Japan.

And it was with a strong sense of this sentiment that I watched S-Pulse play out an entertaining game with Yokohama FC. The, if only brief, sense of normality is something those around me seemed to be craving. After such a traumatic fortnight, football does save. This sport has given people a channel for their energies, and one which is perfectly suited to the overriding national characteristic of community and common responsibility.

The unimaginable hardships being endured by those in the most badly affected areas are not dampening the ambition and drive to get their teams up and running again. Due to efforts of officials and supporters, their own and of other clubs’, Sendai will be back in action at a training camp as early as April 3rd. For many there is still a long, hard road ahead, but when the season restarts on April 23rd, it will be with a new sense of unity. Rivalries will exist as ever, but beneath the surface, ties between opposing teams and their fans will be deeper than at any time. The J. League will be all the stronger for it.

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