Japan's footballers will wear black armbands and observe a moment's silence on Saturday as the disrupted J.League makes a sombre return from suspension after last month's catastrophic earthquake.
Asia's top domestic competition will hold its first games since the 11 March quake, tsunami and nuclear crisis, with all kicking off in the early afternoon to conserve electricity. Kashima Antlers and Vegalta Sendai -- as well as second-tier Mito HollyHock -- have been forced to shift their home games because of stadium damage, while two players have quit their clubs over the disaster.
Striker Marquinhos left Sendai citing trauma, while defender and fellow Brazilian Hugo departed Montedio Yamagata after his family urged him to stop playing in Japan. The country has been struck by several strong aftershocks and is grappling with heavy damage to the Fukushima nuclear plant after the 9.0-magnitude earthquake, which left about 13,000 confirmed dead.
"The earthquake heavily affected the Kashima, Mito and Sendai stadiums. It will be the key to restoration that we can stage games at these stadiums," said J.League chairman Kazumi Ohigashi after inspecting the Kashima ground. "The three clubs have overcome many problems and home town people are waiting for them to come back. I hope and I believe the players will give 100 per cent."
Kashima host Yokohama F-Marinos in their temporary home, Tokyo's National Stadium, where they held South Korea's Suwon Bluewings 1-1 this week in their first post-quake game in Japan. "Unfortunately, we can't play at the Kashima stadium. But I think we can play comfortably in a game at the National Stadium," said Kashima's Brazilian coach Oswaldo Oliveira.
Teams have rallied round after the disaster, with defending champions Nagoya Grampus raising more than 15 million yen ($180,000) through a collection among players and staff, and a charity match against Sanfrecce Hiroshima. "I wondered whether we should play football or not, but we are professional football players and supporters will come to see us play. I want to show them our positive attitude for them," said Nagoya's Yoshizumi Ogawa.
Japan's national team played a fund-raiser against a J.League select team, while Gamba Osaka also raised 36 million yen through a charity game and auction. Gamba midfielder Tomokazu Myojin said the weekend's action was like a new start to the season, after only one round of games was possible before the earthquake forced the six-week shutdown.
He said: "Although we played two games in the Champions League, it's a new start. But I feel a lot of expectation rather than anxiety, because we had very good preparations."