On March 11, 2011, the coastal town of Shichigahama in Japan’s Miyagi prefecture was struck by the tsunami. Approximately 1000 homes were destroyed by the massive wave and civic buildings wrecked, while some 90 of its inhabitants perished. Among the buildings obliterated was the stadium, which once played host to local amateur tournaments and school teams.
Now locals have gathered together to celebrate the stadium’s reopening, the result of over a year’s worth of hard work and fundraising efforts that have seen money pour in both from locals and overseas.
In honour of this important milestone, the Switzerland team competing in the FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup paid a visit to the stadium both to pay their respects to the tsunami’s victims and share the joy of local schoolchildren that their beloved football was returning to their town.
Team members listened to the stadium’s director give a short presentation on the impact of the tsunami and subsequent efforts to return the town to normal life, before distributing Swiss sweets and presents to the children, who seemed delighted that the players had taken the time to come and see them.
“I love football players so much,” enthused 11-year-old Kuta Fujimora, a smile beaming across her face. “I watch them on TV but this is the first time I’ve met a real-life team face-to-face!”
Fujimora’s words were music to the ears of the Swiss players, and defender Noelle Maritz spoke for the whole side when she said, “My team-mates and I will never forget today. It has inspired us. When we go back to our friends and family we will tell them all about these wonderful kids and what a beautiful country this is.”
“Win or lose,” Maritz concluded, “we’ll go home with great memories.”
The visit was the brainchild of team director Walter Peter, who also arranged to have the children attend Switzerland’s opening game against New Zealand. Peter told the children that his side had not come to Japan just to play football, but to reach out to locals and learn about the tragedy that had befallen them a year ago.
“You must keep playing,” he stressed: “Never give up! We’re all here to share your joy and to support you as you move onwards and upwards!”
Football is a reflection of life
The Swiss have a hectic schedule at this year’s tournament. Meet-and-greets and rigorous training sessions fill the players’ time but will the potent combination of hard work and inspiration pay off?
On Wednesday they play their second Group A game against Mexico desperate to make up ground after their opening 2-1 defeat to New Zealand. A positive result is vital if they are to progress further in the competition.
This is Switzerland’s third appearance in the finals of the FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup, having featured in both the 2006 and 2010 editions They are yet to make it past the group stages at the tournament and coach Yannick Schwery is determined to lose the losing habit.
“It’s simple,” Schwery said of the upcoming clash with Mexico: “If we lose we go out, so we’ll be doing everything we can to win!”
But the coach is under no illusions about the challenge facing his charges: “It will be an intense match. They are a good side and so are we. Our only problem is finishing off our attacks and I’m going to work hard to sort that out.”
Despite their disappointing start to the competition, Schwery believes his side can do it. The sight of the wreckage left by the tsunami and the schoolchildren’s joy to see their stadium open once more has left him inspired.
Speaking at the stadium he said: “We lost a game yesterday but today we are here. Every new day brings fresh hope. That’s football: it’s like life itself. The people of this town rebuilt their stadium. They didn’t despair after the appalling tragedy that hit them and we must follow their example.”
“I have a message to my players,” the young coach concluded: “Never give up. Try as hard as you can up until the last second. There is always hope.”