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Soccer world stands together in Japan’s hour of need

by Andrew Mckirdy

Empty platitudes are common in soccer, but there has been nothing false about the messages of support coming from all over Japan and around the world these past two weeks.

Next Tuesday, when the national team takes on a J. League select XI in Osaka to raise money for the victims of the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, everyone involved in the Japanese game gets their chance to play a part on the pitch as well as off it.

It goes without saying that soccer has taken a back seat in the aftermath of the country’s worst crisis since World War II, and the J. League deserves credit for its swift and sensible decision to indefinitely postpone the campaign, announcing Tuesday that it will resume on April 23.

Until then, however, the sport still has an important role to play.

When the J. League was founded, one of its core principles was that clubs would represent their communities, not the companies from which they were originally born. Over the years those roots have sunk deeper and deeper into local life, taking the responsibilities of the clubs beyond sport and into the wider welfare of the community.

That has been borne out by the overwhelming display of solidarity shown over the past two weeks, with contributions from clubs, players and fans all over the country and throughout the rest of the world. These gestures, whether huge donations or something as simple as Valencia’s players wearing their shirt names in katakana for a Spanish League match, have not gone unnoticed by those most in need of help.

“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,” Vegalta’s Yoichi Shirahata, the president of one of the hardest-hit clubs, wrote on the team’s website. “Please do keep on giving your support and cooperation for the stricken areas. We depend on you all.”

On Tuesday, soccer’s efforts will be given a focal point when the national team takes on a J. League XI led by Dragan Stojkovic and featuring the likes of Shunsuke Nakamura, Mitsuo Ogasawara and Kazuyoshi Miura. Proceeds will go to charity, and the organizers — the JFA and J. League in tandem — hope to use the game as a rallying call for the nation.

The message they intend to convey is one of unity, and the actions of those European clubs who have allowed their players to take part, despite being under no obligation to do so, shows that sentiment has resonated outside of Japan too.

J. League clubs now have something tangible to work toward with the announcement of the resumption of the season, and although badly affected teams such as Vegalta, Kashima Antlers and Mito HollyHock may need more time to recover fully, as long as the current attitude of cooperation, patience, understanding and support continues, a solution will emerge.

Until then, fans, players and clubs must bide their time, but that certainly does not mean they must wait and do nothing. If the past two weeks are anything to go by, there is little chance of that happening.