Sport & Culture

The J-League and the Tsunami

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Sport & Culture

The J-League and the Tsunami

As the J-League begins, it’s worth remembering how Japan’s football players stepped up after the tsunami.

It’s a year since the earthquake and tsunami devastated Japan as the 2012 J-League season kicks off, and football fans around the country have been paying their respects and commemorating the anniversary.

The 2011 season was one game old when it all happened, and the game was quick to call a halt to the competition; it was six weeks before the 18 teams in the top tier restarted the campaign. During that time, football players, coaches, officials and fans were busy doing their bit to help those affected most by the disaster.

First, they started collecting money. The sight of professional football players outside subway and train stations in major cities and rattling wooden collection boxes became a common sight.

Soon after the disaster I spoke to Australian defender Eddy Bosnar, who played for Shimizu S-Pulse, a team located in Shizuoka, west of Tokyo.

“All the players have been here to stand in front of the train station holding big wooden boxes,” Bosnar told me.” People have been happy to see us, and everyone has been very generous. The boxes are soon full, not with coins but with notes.”

There was more. With no games, players had to stay fit by playing practice matches against other clubs, and all ticket proceeds were given to charity. Shimizu played storied Amsterdam side Ajax.

The six-week break that came after a three-month off-season provided challenges for coaches.

“It has been a tragic time, but our continual training has been a source of comfort for the people here,” Shimizu head coach, Afshin Ghotbi said. “We’ve had training blocks with a friendly at the end of each block, followed by a day or two off. We set up short-term goals for players in that block and created competition among the players with a daily points system, and at the end prizes are given out.”

Then there was the March 29 game. The national team had been due to play an exhibition against New Zealand, but the All Whites cancelled their trip. Instead, the national team played a team of J-League all-stars in front of over 40,000 fans. It was an emotional evening, especially when Yasuhito Endo scored and the players held up their black armbands to the sky.

Like many residents of Tokyo and elsewhere, some players travelled to the devastated Tohoku region to help. Former international Mitsuo Ogasawara is from that part of the world, and got in a car to see what was going on.

“There are people with no water, food, clothes or homes. There were rations coming through, but the distribution wasn't quick enough. I decided to set up my own network to help with the distribution to those who most needed it,” he said.

The club closest to the devastation was Vegalta Sendai. Tipped for relegation, Sendai’s fans worked to get the damaged stadium fixed before the restart and the players took the team to an unexpected fifth place in the league.

Like the rest of the country, football pulled together in those dark days, and while all fans are looking forward to a thrilling season in 2012, just as it starts it’s time to take a look back and remember what happened.