FIFA President Joseph S. Blatter has sent a message of support to the Japanese football community ahead of what is sure to be an emotional return for the J.League this weekend. Domestic football has been suspended since the devastating earthquake and tsunami of 11 March, and Saturday’s resumption is set to be marked by a moment’s silence and the wearing of black armbands.
The lasting damage to the country’s north-east has also required practical adjustments, with Kashima Antlers, Vegalta Sendai and second tier Mito HollyHock all playing at neutral venues until their stadiums can be repaired and restored. And it was mindful of the damage caused by last month’s catastrophic events that FIFA’s President wrote to his Japanese Football Association counterpart, Junji Ogura, to pledge the world governing body’s full backing.
“FIFA will fully support your association in the reconstruction of its football facilities, especially the J-Village and the Medical Centre,” he wrote. “Moreover, I am happy that the J.League will restart this Saturday, 23 April and I kindly ask you to pass on my best wishes to the clubs, the players and the fans.”
The football family has united squarely behind Japan in the weeks since the earthquake struck, with several charitable initiatives and benefit matches helping to raise funds for victims of this natural disaster. Zico, who organised one such match in Brazil, told FIFA.com that he has no doubts over the ability to recover of a people famed for their spirit and resilience.
He said: “Everyone knows about the powers of recovery of the Japanese people, and once again they’re showing that strength and discipline of theirs. We know it’s going to take time, but what else can you do? They’re going to recover from this.”
This kind of support hasn’t gone unnoticed, with Yoichi Shirahata, president of Vegalta Sendai, thanking those within the beautiful game for the solidarity they have shown to his hard-hit region.
In a statement on the club website, he said: “We have received tremendous encouragement from our friends across the J. League and throughout the football world, and we are working hard for Vegalta Sendai, too, to engage swiftly in the reconstruction and assistance activities together with our friends. Please do keep on giving your support and cooperation for the stricken areas. We depend on you all.”
Returning the Sendai outfit and others like them to their rightful homes may take time, but the determination with which the football community, and Japan as a whole, has responded would auger well. And as J.League chairman Kazumi Ohigashi said this week, the return of their favourite clubs could help to begin restoring some measure of normality to life for people in the hardest-hit areas.
"It will be the key to restoration that we can stage games at the stadiums in Kashima, Sendai and Mito," he said. "These three clubs have overcome many problems and the people in those areas are waiting for them to come back."
Nagoya Grampus Eight are the J.League’s reigning champions and they resume domestic duties looking to build on the point gained in the first match of their title defence. Midfielder Yoshizumi Ogawa admitted to mixed emotions about returning to action, but acknowledged that the occasion is sure to boost morale among the country’s fans.
He said: "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.”
Such determination has been evident in the Japanese clubs that have continued to be involved in vital AFC Champions League matches since the earthquake, with Kashima, Nagoya, Gamba Osaka and Cerezo Osaka all providing impressive performances. The national association has also confirmed that Japan will take part, as planned, as guests at July’s Copa America in Argentina.
The return of the country’s domestic league is another step on the road to recovery, and those involved will have the entire football family willing them to succeed. As the FIFA President concluded in his letter of support: “For the Game. For the World. For Japan.”