Japanese spirit wows visiting teams
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It was nine months ago today that the world watched, utterly aghast, as the first horrific images began filtering through from Japan. None of us is likely to forget where we were as the scale of the devastating Tohoku earthquake and tsunami became horribly clear, with the dead numbering in tens of thousands and a whole coastline rendered unrecognisable.

Japan’s prime minister described it at the time as his nation’s worst crisis since the Second World War, and yet even at that stage, when the picture was at its bleakest, a quick and effective recovery was being confidently predicted. This, after all, is a nation renowned for meeting adversity with courage and determination, two attributes which have again come to the fore since that dreadful March day.

Among the outsiders awe-struck by Japan’s response have been competitors at the FIFA Club World Cup, which is back in the Land of the Rising Sun after a two-year stint in UAE. Players, officials and fans alike have been revelling in the famously friendly Japanese hospitality, and all have been united in their admiration and gratitude.

Santos striker Borges, who remembers fondly a stint with Vegalta Sendai in 2006, led the chorus of tributes. As he pointed out: “The way the Japanese people have reacted to such terrible natural tragedies this year just showcases of what kind of country this is.”

Another of Japan’s many admirers from the world of football is Andres Iniesta, who spoke of the nation in glowing terms in a recent FIFA.com interview. “I admire the Japanese personality,” said the Barcelona star. “They cherish respect and companionship, values that for me are fundamental and which I greatly admire.”

No matter which team wins and which team loses, the goal is to do our best to bring smiles to the people who were affected by these disasters.
Monterrey's Ricardo Osorio

While Iniesta focused on the sociable and respectful nature of the Japanese people, Esperance coach Nabil Maaloul dwelt on a fighting spirit that he hopes will rub off on his players. “Japan is a great nation, with fantastic culture and history,” he enthused. “It's the land of the Samurais, and I really love this culture. They were warriors, fighters, and I hope that can be inspiring for my team. After the terrible events that touched the country recently, I support the Japanese people with all my heart.”

This spirit of solidarity has been replicated in each of the six continental champions competing at Japan 2011, and so too has a determination to repay their hosts’ generosity. And, for most, the best way of doing that is by putting on a show to remember. Monterrey’s Ricardo Osorio summed up the mood when he said: “Football is a sport of happiness and hopefully this World Cup serves to bring happiness to everyone in Japan. No matter which team wins and which team loses, the goal is to do our best to bring smiles to the people who were affected by these disasters. That’s the thing that really matters to us.”

These sentiments have been echoed elsewhere, with Esperance captain Ousama Darragi admitting that, at this particular tournament, winning is not the only objective. “I'm full of emotion for this great country after the tragic events of March,” he said. “I'm coming to Japan to try to bring smiles and joy to the Japanese people thanks to our football.”

Another player who shares this aim is Al-Sadd captain Abdullah Koni, although the big defender revealed a personal reason for wanting to serve up a footballing feast. “I’m from Senegal, so I remember that Japan helped us when we were in trouble,” he explained, referring to aid that was sent following a spate of floods in his homeland. “I’d like to give something in return and will do as much as I can on the pitch to achieve that.”

With so many players so highly motivated by such a laudable aim, Japan 2011 may yet prove worthy of its exemplary hosts.