Tuesday, March 29, 2011
Rebuilding in Japan
It is almost a year ago to the day since the Japan national team played Serbia at Nagai Stadium in Osaka. A 3-0 defeat, the latest in a series of poor results, ensured the most miserable lap of honour seen for many a year. At that point, 46,000 fans gave the thumbs down and left, hardly noticing the beautiful cherry blossom trees that were in full bloom, to share their misgivings about the coach and worries about the World Cup.
On Tuesday evening, the arena will be similarly united, but the mood will be very different. Almost three weeks after the March 11 earthquake hit, a J.League Select XL, called 'Team As One' and featuring greats of the past and present, will take on the national team in a special charity match to help victims of the disaster.
Europe-based stars such as Keisuke Honda and Yuto Nagatomo have made the trip home for the game while old J.League favourites such as Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi, Shinji Ono and Kazuyoshi 'Kazu' Miura will be lining up against the current international side. If there is any positive to take, it is how people around the world have reacted to help the stricken nation. Now it is football's turn and it promises to be an emotional evening.
The beautiful game may deal too much in the sensational, where pundits speak of 'suicidal' defending and 'disastrous' goalkeeping errors, but when it comes to true tragedy, the beautiful game can bring people together like no other sport. It is fitting that the great and the good of Japanese football are leading the way.
The Osaka match is the first high-profile game since it all happened. Two national team friendlies against Montenegro and then New Zealand were scrapped. The J.League will resume on April 23, six weeks after the initial earthquake.
For most clubs, those away from the epicentre at least, life may be returning to something approaching normality but these are unusual circumstances. After the three-month long close-season, teams played the opening weekend of the season and now are in the middle of a six-week break.
Dido Havenaar, whose son Mike plays for Ventforet Kofu and has been selected in the J.League 'Team As One', is the assistant coach of champions Nagoya Grampus. He told ESPNsoccernet. "We were on our way to Sendai when it happened.
"We were lucky. We came back that night. We heard rumours that the J.League wanted to cancel some games because of damage to stadiums.
"First they said April 2, so we gave the players one week off. We had held practice sessions but there was no motivation or concentration which is entirely understandable.
"Anyway, with the J.League setting the date on April 23, we started playing games last week. It is difficult in football terms. You find your rhythm in the off-season, we then had the Super Cup a week before the season started, then we had a J.League game and then we have to start again."
Havenaar talked of how Nagoya, who brought the J.League title to the city for the first time in December, had been active in the city raising and collecting money to help the relief effort. In times like these, local clubs can provide comforting symbols of continuity and unity.
"We were also lucky because we are quite far away. For others of course, it is a huge problem. At Sendai, Kashima and Omiya for example, they have damage to stadiums and they have to practise somewhere else and they have to find elsewhere to play home games."
When the league starts again, Nagoya will be less rusty than most as the team have games in the Asian Champions League to deal with. Two games against FC Seoul and the visit of Al Ain from the UAE will enable Dragan Stojkovic to keep the players focused.
"We have the Asian Champions League and it is good that we will do so," Havenaar said. "We are looking for good opponents and preparation so these games come at a good time for us."
Lying roughly halfway between Nagoya and Tokyo is the city of Shizuoka, home to Shimizu S-Pulse. Head coach Afshin Ghotbi expected to be four or five games into his J.League career by now. Instead, he has seen his new team in competitive action for just 90 minutes after arriving in Japan fresh from taking Iran to the quarter-final of the 2011 Asian Cup in January. All at the club were eager to get going after a 3-0 loss on the road at the home of Kashiwa Reysol on the opening day of the season, and the visit of powerhouse Kashima Antlers was a great way to do so.
"We were preparing for our first home match," Ghotbi told ESPNsoccernet. "We had a training session in the Shimizu S-Pulse stadium in the morning of March 11 and returned home to pack to travel to the team hotel for the match. Then, my house started shaking and rolling. The intensity grew with time, and it seemed to last forever. The house started to make cracking sounds and I thought it was going to collapse. I have lived through a few quakes in California, but this earthquake was on a different scale.
"This tragedy has affected everyone in my club, as our training ground and club house is only approximately 100 metres away from the ocean so the images of the tsunami shook the nerves of our players and their entire families. People were sad, terrified and concerned about the wellbeing of their families, community and nation. Our foreign players were perhaps more scared as they were influenced by foreign media and embassies."
With hundreds of aftershocks, including one that measured 6.1 on the Richter scale in Shizuoka, it is not surprising that people are still nervous. Australia international Jade North had just joined FC Tokyo but was quickly on his way back Down Under with the blessing of the J2 team, while other teams allowed foreign stars to leave for a while.
Shimizu were quick to give players time off in the early days but now things are getting back to normal. Ghotbi said: "We are training daily now and have scheduled four friendly matches and began with a match on Saturday, March 26, preparing for the restart of the season on April 23. All the friendly matches will be charity games to raise hope, funds and support for the victims of the earthquake and tsunami.
"Our continual training was a symbol of hope for our fans.
"Football and love have always united the world. The game has been a great healer for our players, and the training sessions gave our players positive energy to cope with this historic disaster. The Japanese people have shown the world the good side of humanity with their unity, discipline, honesty, and sense of community. Japan will recover from this and build a better nation, and I hope their efforts will inspire the rest of the world to be better place for our children."