Fukushima eagerly awaiting Japan 2011
© FIFA.com

The Great Tohoku Earthquake and subsequent tsunami that struck Japan on 11 March this year devastated a 500 kilometres stretch of coastline and left 19,485 people dead or missing. The disaster was given a further dimension in Fukushima Prefecture, 200 kilometres north of Tokyo, where the earthquake and tsunami critically damaged the Fukushima Dai-Ichi Nuclear Power Plant. The resulting radiation leaks left the two million residents of Fukushima fearing the worst, while to this day people who lived within 20 kilometres of the plant are still unable to return to their homes.

Youngsters still dreaming
Although situated some 70 kilometres from the plant, high atmospheric radiation readings have been registered in Fukushima City, the capital of Fukushima Prefecture. Despite this, local club Fukushima United FC took the decision to play on and, in spite of their many problems this season, the team have prospered out on the field. Indeed, United won their division, which forms part of the fourth tier of Japanese football, and are now set to compete in regional play-offs for promotion to the Japan Football League (the country’s third tier) - scheduled to start on 18 November.

Young players at the club’s academy remain concerned about the nuclear situation, but they have not given up on their footballing dreams. “After the disaster, we thought that football was over for us. When we heard there was radiation, we couldn’t see any way forward,” said Naoto Saitoh, a member of the club’s U-14 squad. “However, the academy was up and running again only six weeks later. It was a relief to see my team-mates and I was happy to be playing again.”

U-13 squad member Kanta Watanabe, for his part, has not been swayed from his goal of turning pro and one day playing in a FIFA Club World Cup. “I used to live near one of the radiation hotspots shown on TV. My family had to evacuate, so I thought I’d have to give up playing,” said Watanabe. “I still want to be a footballer though. I don’t know what will happen in the future, but I just want to keep on playing as much as I can.”

After the disaster, we thought that football was over for us. When we heard there was radiation, we couldn’t see any way forward.
Naoto Saitoh, Fukushima United U-14 player.

Toshio Suda, the Academy Director at Fukushima United FC, outlined the significance of the FIFA Club World Cup Japan 2011: “The tournament allows us to experience live football at the highest level. It’s great for firing the kids’ enthusiasm. Football gives them hope and dreams and teaches them to do their best.”

Club President Hayato Suzuki added: “It’s been eight months since the disaster, but the nuclear situation makes us very unsure about the future. Due to the radiation levels, there are limits on how long children can play outdoors. This is an unhealthy and stressful situation for them, and can hurt their ambitions. That’s why I hope to see some great games at Japan 2011. I want to see top players fighting to the final whistle. It is a great example to young people about not giving up.”

Tezuka aiming high
Fukushima United’s first XI are coached by Satoshi Tezuka, a former professional striker who won 25 senior caps for Japan back in the 1980s. Since turning his hand to coaching, one of his major achievements was gaining back-to-back promotions with Fagiano Okayama to take them into J. League Division 2.

“Some people overseas still think Fukushima and Japan are unsafe, so I think it’s important that Japan is hosting the Club World Cup,” said Tezuka. “Our club is only in the fourth division at the moment, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have big ambitions. We want to grow, to win the Asian Champions League, and play against the world’s top clubs ourselves!”

Next up for Fukushima though is the preliminary round of the regional promotion play-offs. If they are to win through, they will advance to the final decisive round of games which start on 2 December.  After that, whether they have secured promotion or not, they can sit back, reflect on an eventful season, and enjoy Japan 2011.