Vegalta Sendai’s late win over Kawasaki Frontale gave the J. League a memorable story line on its return to action on Saturday, but the mere fact that soccer was back on the menu was the real victory.
Coming back from a six-week layoff in the wake of the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, the feeling of pride and unity was palpable as Vegalta visited Todoroki Stadium with a sizeable traveling support intent on savoring every moment.
Dreadful weather did its best to dampen events, but there could be no extinguishing the drama when Jiro Kamata popped up to ram an 87th-minute header past Kawasaki goalkeeper Rikihiro Sugiyama in front of a delirious away end.
Manager Makoto Teguramori’s tears at full-time told their own story, as did the pained celebrations of midfielder Yoshiaki Ota as he cramped up after lashing home Vegalta’s equalizer in the 73rd minute.
“We knew we had to give everything to bring some happiness to the Tohoku region,” said Ota, who was substituted three minutes later. “We knew we had to run until we couldn’t run any more, and unfortunately in my case that’s what happened.”
There was also joy for J2 club Mito HollyHock, which celebrated its return to the quake-damaged K’s Denki Stadium with an injury-time winner against Tokushima Vortis, but Vegalta and Mito’s victories were really just the icing on the cake. The true pleasure came from the day itself — from lacing up boots, chasing down passes, unfurling flags, eating and drinking in the sun and meeting up with familiar faces.
It is impossible to tell how the disruption will affect teams over the weeks and months to come, but at least now they are back on the pitch where they belong.
Yokohama F. Marinos manager Kazushi Kimura was greeted with laughter when he set his sights on the title at the start of the season, but Kashima Antlers were certainly in no mood for jokes after losing to the Kanagawa side on Saturday.
Marinos put three goals without reply past the team that won the league three years in a row between 2007-09, regaining momentum seven weeks after starting the campaign with an impressive draw at Nagoya Grampus.
Four points from two away games against the current and previous champions suggests Kimura’s words might be taken a little more seriously from now on, and the 52-year-old is determined to make the most of it.
“I’m very happy that we managed to beat a strong team like Antlers,” he said. “Here at the start of the season our target is to win every title going, but if we don’t beat teams like this then that will be impossible. This is a huge win for us. It gives the players the confidence to push on.”
A weekend of unexpected results may have raised a few eyebrows across the J. League, but not for Sanfrecce Hiroshima manager Mihailo Petrovic.
A first-minute goal from Tadanari Lee set Sanfrecce on their way to a 4-1 thumping of Gamba Osaka at Big Arch on Sunday, giving the club its first win over Gamba in 10 years.
Having seen Sanfrecce go from relegation to promotion to the Asian Champions League in the space of three seasons, however, Petrovic could do nothing other than take the latest achievement in his stride.
“Ever since I came to Hiroshima things have continually surprised me,” he said. “Some positive and some negative. For example, in 2007 we were relegated, but we also broke club records in some games that season. So from my point of view, to achieve another historic result like today is really just a normal situation.”
Urawa Reds fans have seen enough false dawns to get carried away with another promising start to a season, but Sunday’s 3-0 win over Nagoya Grampus met with murmurs of approval nonetheless.
Manager Zeljko Petrovic made a point of crediting his players for working hard and chasing down the reigning champions all over the pitch, leaving defender Mitsuru Nagata nodding in agreement as he and partner Matthew Spiranovic snuffed out the threat of last season’s league joint-top scorer Josh Kennedy.
“We played very well as a team today,” said Nagata, who joined from Albirex Niigata over the offseason. “The forward players’ pressing was really effective, and that made things easy to read at the back and helped me and Spira take care of Kennedy. The forwards really made it easy for us to defend.”
Quotable: “It’s too early just now, but gradually I want to start building toward being picked for the national team.”
– Vissel Kobe striker Yoshito Okubo lets national team manager Alberto Zaccheroni know he is still around after scoring against Ventforet Kofu on Saturday.