No-one in Japan will ever forget where they were on 11 March 2011, and the experience of Vegalta Sendai coach Makoto Teguramori that day proved a metaphor for the nation. “It was the day before our first home match of the season and we were holding a scouting meeting at the stadium,” he recalled. “When the earthquake struck, the ceiling fell in.”
As the hours passed and the ensuing tsunami wreaked its terrible trail of devastation, it steadily became clear that the Miyagi prefecture – of which Sendai is the capital – had emerged as the worst-hit of all. Nearly 10,000 people were confirmed dead, thousands more were unaccounted for, and Sendai’s infrastructure was also left crippled by a flooded airport and badly damaged port. Nor did Vegalta, the city’s J.League representatives, remain unscathed. The club’s Yurtec Stadium also faced major repairs, this just days after renovations had been completed for the 2011 season - a season that many now expected to be cancelled altogether.
Football certainly became insignificant in the days and weeks that followed, although Teguramori ensured that Vegalta remained at the forefront of the region’s recovery and clean-up operation. While others fled the area, he and his staff remained behind to help clear rubble, while the club’s players helped where they could at various evacuation centres and handed out the club’s training kit to volunteers.
The Yurtec Stadium also became a distribution centre for food, water and clothing, and Vegalta’s status as a symbol of hope was to become stronger still once the J.League’s fledgling 2011 season did indeed resume. Just over six weeks had passed since the disaster, in fact, when a capacity crowd turned out in this same arena to watch Vegalta beat Urawa Red Diamonds 1-0 in a fixture laden with emotion.
We were determined to be the symbol of hope for the entire region. There is nothing we can do to stop a natural disaster, but we can still try not to be beaten by it.
This victory over one of Japan’s traditional heavyweights was considered an upset; after all, Vegalta had spent six of the previous seven seasons in the second tier and were regarded as one of the nation’s footballing minnows. However, if that was a shock, it was nothing compared to what followed, as this unheralded north-eastern outfit embarked on an unprecedented 12-match unbeaten run, ultimately finishing fourth – a club record – with the best defensive record in the division.
Already inspiring, Vegalta’s achievement became all the more amazing given that the club lost its star striker, Marquinho, who was so shaken by the events of 11 March that he returned to his native Brazil. "The departure of Marquinho was a big blow to the team,” Teguramori reflected. “However, the gap created by his departure needed to be filled by the rest of the team, which led to a stronger and closer sense of unity.”
As well as a unified force, Vegalta were also a team with a purpose, having realised that their success in adversity could inspire those suffering even greater hardships. As Teguramori explained: "We were determined to be the symbol of hope for the entire region. There is nothing we can do to stop a natural disaster, but we can still try not to be beaten by it. Our strong desire to fight resulted in success, and we ourselves took strength from the people in this area. Many of these people saw us as a reason to live, so we have tried to prove them right. By winning, we can encourage them.”
By the end of the 2011 season, Vegalta could have declared that mission accomplished. Indeed, ahead of the current campaign, there was a consensus in the national media that tougher times lay ahead for a team whose success was attributed to the emotion of the post-tsunami period. Many pundits even predicted a slide back to the familiar surroundings of the second tier.
As it is, Vegalta go into the 11th round of J.League fixtures at the weekend two points clear at the top, having suffered their first and only loss of the campaign last Saturday. The fact that the club’s ranking remained unaffected is a testament to the manner in which they have started the season, and to the success of a tactical about-turn from Teguramori. After all, while last year’s achievements were indebted to the best defence in Japan – with just 25 goals conceded in 34 matches – it is the league’s most prolific attack that is underpinning their current success, with last Sunday's defeat to Shimizu S-Pulse the first match in which they have failed to score.
Teguramori has spoken of telling his team to “play more aggressively” to mark what he describes as a “year of revival” for Sendai, and the result is a dynamic and free-scoring side that has already seen off a clutch of rivals, including last year’s champions, Kashiwa Reysol. And while two-thirds of the season remain, Vegalta – regardless of their final position – are providing an inspirational example to their entire nation.