Stars unite to lift Japan
Football's restorative qualities were illustrated once again yesterday as Japan took on a J.League XI in a match to raise funds for victims of the country's devastating earthquake and tsunami. The contest ended 2-1 in favour of Alberto Zaccheroni's Samurai Blue, but it was the occasion rather than the outcome which struck a chord among those present at Osaka's Nagai Stadium and the large television audience.
With the 47,000-strong crowd chanting 'Nippon, Nippon', the game, featuring the country's most well-known past and present stars, got off to a good start when Gamba Osaka playmaker Yasuhito Endo opened the scoring for the national team on the quarter-hour mark. Stuttgart striker Shinji Okazaki made it 2-0 soon after, before the legendary Kazuyoshi Miura defied his 44-year-old legs to pull a goal back eight minutes from time.
Okazaki, who had himself experienced an earthquake that struck his hometown near Kobe in 1995, couldn't hide his emotions. "I am alive today because the people around me helped me out," said the 24-year-old. "Now it is time for me to return the support and help, and today's game marks the first step in giving back."
Despite finishing on the losing side, midfielder Kunimitsu Sekiguchi, who plays for Vegalta Sendai in one of the most affected areas of the country, was another happy to play a small role in restoring spirits. "It was March 24 when I first touched the ball this season. I couldn't run enough today but it was worth it to play this game."
Zaccheroni added: "The pitch was brimming with players with great technical quality and they put on a great game, but more than the game it was about everyone gathered here showing togetherness for the Japanese football family and the country as a whole. It was important that we could do something."
The match proved a testament to the Japan football fraternity's determination to defy the odds and play a role in restoring morale. A little less than a week after the 9.0-magnitude earthquake hit the country's north-east, the Japan Football Association (JFA) announced plans to stage a charity match. The concept received immediate support from players both domestically and dotted around the globe. Twelve overseas-based stars returned to form a full-strength national team - the first time thay have appeared on home soil since lifting the AFC Asian Cup in January.
A host of Europe-based players returned to their homeland including Inter Milan defender Yuto Nagatomo and Samurai Blue captain Makoto Hasebe, who took time out from his midfield duties for Wolfsburg. Among others making the most of the brief lull in club action were CSKA Moscow's Keisuke Honda and Schalke defender Atsuto Uchida.
For Zaccheroni, the match provided a chance to send the Japanese people a strong message that they are not alone. "I hope we can support the entire country and particularly the Tohoku district," added the former AC Milan coach. "I believe Japan can overcome the hardships, and the nation should be aware that we are with you closely and so is everybody across the world."
With some stadiums and facilities damaged, and of course many in the population facing hardship in the aftermath of the catastrophe, the country's football is facing a challenging period. The J.League is postponed until 23 April while question marks loom over the short-term plans of the national team following the cancellation of this week’s international matches.
Despite the daunting challenges ahead, Japan's Asian Cup hero, goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima, said that the key at the moment was to exhibit unity. "The fact that all of the Japanese people are gathering together has important meaning," remarked the 28-year-old, whose penalty saves helped his country into the continental decider. "We are saying we are Japanese and we can help each other.”