There wasn’t a fairy tale ending. For awhile, it looked like it was going to happen, but it turned out that the players of Vegalta Sendai are not the football champions of Japan. Instead, Sanfrecce Hiroshima came out on top to take the trophy.
The J-League is the number one league in Asia but has never been won by the team from Sendai. It has never traditionally been a contender. Most of the team’s history has been spent in the lower leagues with six of the seven seasons before 2011 spent in the J2, the country’s second tier.
Most thought that the mini fairytale came in 2011. Sendai was the closest big city to the epicenter of the devastating earthquake and tsunami of March 2011. Most of the surrounding region was severely affected.
The team’s stadium was damaged and work had to be done around the clock to get it ready for the first home game at the end of April, following the resumption of the J-league which had been suspended for six weeks. Even then, fans were told not to bounce too much when the action resumed.
In the past, there had not been much call for bouncing of any kind. Vegalta Sendai had, for years, not been much more than an afterthought in Japanese football.
For awhile, the team occupied the hitherto heady heights of the top spot. It didn’t last, nobody thought it would, but still, the team surprised the whole of football by finishing fourth.
Most assumed that the run of good results was due, at least to the wave of emotion that carried the team forward.
By the time the new season started back in March, that had all been forgotten, but Sendai had improved and found a new level of consistency.
For large parts of the season, fans became increasingly excited as their team topped the table and was battling it out with Sanfrecce Hiroshima.
Going into the penultimate game, Sendai had to defeat Albirex Niigata to keep their hopes alive.
"The only game we lost at home this season was against Shimizu when it hailed,''said coach Makoto Teguramori. "We rarely lose at home so we feel confident we can keep the title chase alive. We'll build on the strength of our supporters to fight to the end.''
"We were determined to be the symbol of hope for the entire region,'' Teguramori said. "Many people saw us as a reason to live, so we have tried to prove them right. By winning we can encourage them.''
Unfortunately for Sendai and its fans, the team just couldn’t take that final step and lost at home to Niigata while at the opposite end of the country, Hiroshima defeated Cerezo Osaka 4-1 to take the trophy.
“When I realised the title was ours, my mind went blank,” said Sanfrecce midfielder Koji Morisaki. “But I’m just really delighted. We’ve been through some tough patches, but today we got our reward. I’m so happy that I was born and raised in Hiroshima and could play football for Sanfrecce.”