Among the crowd that watched Japan and New Zealand play out a nail-biting 2-2 draw at the FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup 2012 on Wednesday were some special visitors from disaster-hit Fukushima Prefecture. Seventy children and parents from the cities of Soma and Fukushima were invited and funded by FIFA and the Local Organising Committee to attend the game in Miyagi - a neighbouring prefecture also hit hard by last year’s earthquake and tsunami.
Soma’s coastal areas were inundated by tsunami in March of last year, while the nuclear meltdowns triggered by the disaster spread radioactive materials over Fukushima city and other parts of the prefecture. What is more, some areas in Fukushima still restrict outdoor activities for children of primary-school age and younger due to radiation issues.
The chance to watch the Young Nadeshiko and the Junior Football Ferns was therefore a welcome break for the Fukushima visitors. “I’m very grateful to the organising committee for inviting us,” said Yonefumi Sato, who lives in Soma with her 12-year-old daughter Madoka, when speaking to FIFA.com.
“The support of the football community has been incredible. I think that has made our passion for football even stronger,” continued Sato. “I hope watching this game will somehow inspire my daughter. In that sense, this event would do so much to help the recovery.”
Sato had been particularly looking forward to watching the game with Madoka, who plays football for her school. Joining them in Miyagi was one of her colleagues in said school side, Makoto Arakawa. “I hope the Young Nadeshiko play well as a team and win,” Arakawa said before the game. “I want them to score some goals.”
Both girls said there have been some tough times since the 2011 disaster, but watching Japan’s stirring comeback from an early 2-0 deficit has fuelled their football ambitions. Meanwhile, Takayuki Onodera, a second-year middle school student from Fukushima city, could not hide his excitement at the opportunity to watch the Young Nadeshiko. “I watched them beat Mexico in their first game. It was fun,” he said. “I hope I can learn how to pass the ball around quickly like they do.”
When asked to name his favourite player, Onodera selected midfielder Yoko Tanaka, and not just because of her footballing prowess. “She’s an excellent player, and she’s pretty,” he said with a grin, before summing up his Miyagi adventure. “I’ve never been invited to an event like this before, so today was a special and happy day,” he said after the game.
Tanaka herself was surely delighted to have had the Fukushima visitors watching from the stands, given the player has close bonds with the city. She attended the JFA Academy Fukushima, an elite educational institution that opened in 2006 but had to shift to Shizuoka Prefecture south of Tokyo after the 2011 disaster.
When Tanaka, who dragged Japan back into the match against the Kiwis with her goal late in the first half to make the score 2-1, was told about the special group of supporters, she was quick to offer a message of appreciation.
“I’m so grateful for everything the people of Fukushima have done for me,” said Tanaka after the game. “I have so many memories from my time there. I’m thrilled that I scored in front of the Fukushima children. Perhaps scoring was one way I can repay the people of Fukushima for what they’ve given me. I’m glad they could be here tonight.”