Just 43 days after the devastating earthquake and tsunami that shocked Japan on 11 March, fans across the country poured into the stadiums as the J.League made an emotional return on Saturday. Players and supporters stood together to observe a moment's silence before kick-off to show their respect to those who lost their lives.
Prior to the resumption, FIFA President Joseph S. Blatter offered his support to the nation's football community and paid tribute to the people's "powers of recovery". After the weekend games, his JFA counterpart, Junji Ogura, spoke to FIFA.com about the difficulties and hardship the country has gone through, the significance of the league's return and his prediction for the Japanese teams taking part in the FIFA Women's World Cup Germany 2011 and the FIFA U-17 World Cup Mexico 2011.
FIFA.com: President Ogura, what damage did the disaster cause to Japanese football?
Junji Ogura: In the coastal areas of north-eastern Japan, playgrounds were damaged by the tsunami and children have lost their facilities. This, I think, is the biggest damage caused by the earthquake in footballing terms.
But with the resumption of the J.League we aim to encourage people and we believe that Japan’s football can be restored by everyone working together for the good of the game.
What are your emotions now that the J.League has resumed?
As everyone knows, the earthquake that hit Japan caused tremendous difficulties to many of our J.League clubs. Clubs like Kashima, Sendai and Mito suffered damage to their stadiums and other buildings so it took them time to restore training facilities.
We are also glad that J.League sides, together with all 37 clubs from divisions one and two, worked tremendously hard to resume the league as quickly as possible. This is a giant step forward in making this year’s league successful.
The message we received from Mr. Blatter before the resumption and his concern about the situation of Japan have touched us deeply. We are very grateful to FIFA's support for the reconstruction of Japan’s football.
Japanese football responded bravely to the disaster, by arranging a charity match featuring the country's stars on 29 March. What was the significance of that?
The Japan Football Association defied the post-disaster hardship and difficulties to arrange the charity match with a dual goal: firstly to encourage the afflicted area through football and to raise funds for the victims. We needed to do something for them. Despite the tight time in preparation, the stadium was full of spectators [40,613 supporters]. We are very grateful to all the people who took part in this event. As a result, more than 100 million Japanese yen were collected. We believe our message was delivered.
How do you rate the recent performances of the J.League participants in the AFC Champions League?
Despite all the difficulties facing them after the earthquake, our four clubs have worked to their utmost in Asian competitions and we look forward to more brilliant performances and results.
At international level, Japan will represent Asia at the FIFA Women's World Cup and FIFA U1-7 World Cup, both due to happen during June and July. What are your expectations for these two teams?
Japan has received a lot of encouragement and support from around the world. I expect the two teams to make our presence strongly felt through good performances. By doing so I hope we can express our gratitude to the world.