Japan stars face off for disaster victims
Japan internationals past and present battled head-on in Osaka today to raise funds for victims of the country's devastating earthquake and tsunami at an all-star football match.
Before a roaring sell-out crowd at the 47,000-capacity Nagai Stadium, Alberto Zaccheroni's Samurai Blue beat a J.League select side, including many former internationals, 2-1.
Gamba Osaka midfielder Yasuhito Endo opened the scoring with a free kick in the 15th minute and Stuggart striker Shinji Okazaki doubled the score five minutes later for the Samurai Blue. But Kazuyoshi Miura, the oldest J-League player at 44, pulled one back on 82 minutes when he took a headed pass from Marcus Tulio Tanaka in the box and slotted beyond substitute Samurai goalkeeper Masaaki Higashiguchi.
"It was your support which gave us great power when we usually fought on the pitch," Japan captain and Wolfsburg midfielder Makoto Hasebe said as the players gathered on the pitch before a silent prayer and the 7.20pm (10.20am GMT) kick-off. "Now it is our turn to support you. Believing in the power of football, we will play our heart out," said the 27-year-old, one of the 12 players released by European clubs for the event.
The charity match, following the catastrophe which devastated the country's north-east coast, brought together the Samurai Blue for the first time since they lifted a record fourth AFC Asian Cup title in Qatar just two months ago.
It was held under floodlights as western Japan has been spared the rolling blackouts caused by damage to power facilities, including a nuclear plant some 580km (360 miles) north-east of Osaka. The J.League has shut down its regular season for five rounds until mid-April to save the electricity used to stage night matches.
Supporters, who paid up to 5,000 yen ($60) a head, chanted: "Nippon, Nippon." Banners read "Gambare (Hang on), Japan," "You'll Never Walk Alone" or "World Football Family, Arigato (Thank you)." Proceeds from the match will go to the disaster areas, according to the Japan Football Association.
Endo's 20-metre freekick came after CSKA Moscow midfielder Keisuke Honda was fouled by Kawasaki's Kengo Nakamura outside the box. Okazaki trapped a through pass and slotted past former international goalkeeper Seigo Narazaki.
Zaccheroni, who took over the Samurai Blue after they reached the last 16 at last year's FIFA World Cup™, and J.League manager Dragan Stojkovic, the Serbian manager of league champions Nagoya Grampus, made several substitutions. Stojkovic sent on Miura, the 1993 Asian Footballer of the Year, and former Celtic star Shunsuke Nakamura, 32, in the second half.
"Technically, it turned out to be a great, quality match with a plenty of quality players," said 57-year-old Zaccheroni, a former AC Milan boss. "For the J.League side, Miura scored a goal which symbolised his career and I'm pleased," he said. "I believe we could show what everybody in Japanese football can do as one."
Stojkovic, 46, said that the disaster victims must have realised "they were not alone. We are always with them." Prior to the match, supporters donated a total 15m yen ($184,000) while attending open practice sessions over three days.