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Ogasawara learned how sport can inspire in wake of tragedy

by Andrew Mckirdy

Staff Writer

Mitsuo Ogasawara has never been a man of many words, but as the J. League takes a break from its normal schedule to host a disaster-relief charity match on Saturday, the Kashima Antlers midfielder is determined to give a voice to those still affected by the Great East Japan Earthquake.

Kashima Stadium is the venue for the match between a team of J. League All-Stars and a team of players with links to the disaster zone, with former Juventus legend Alessandro Del Piero adding spice to the mix with an appearance in support of the country that won his heart during Italy’s 2002 World Cup training base in Sendai.

Playing alongside Del Piero will be Ogasawara, a six-time J. League champion and 2009 MVP whose actions in the aftermath of the disaster made him the sportsman perhaps most closely identified with relief efforts.

The 33-year-old drove 12 hours to distribute supplies and help survivors in his wife’s devastated hometown of Rikuzentakata, Iwate Pref., but 16 months on he is keen to stress how much still needs to be done.

“Kashima still bears the scars of the earthquake,” the Iwate-born Ogasawara said at Antlers’ training ground earlier this week. “Roads still haven’t been properly fixed and houses still have damaged roofs. Everything is still in the process of recovery. It has been a year and four months since the disaster, but this is still the reality for a lot of places. Hopefully this game can do something to give these people strength.”

Saturday’s match will not be the first time Japanese soccer has shown its support, with players and fans coming together for the “Team As One” game in Osaka last year less than three weeks after the disaster. The match was praised for providing a rallying point for an embattled nation, but at the time Ogasawara was not so sure.

“Not even two months had passed since the disaster, and at first I said it was impossible for me to take part in the game because I didn’t think it was a time for football,” he said. “At the time there were people with no food or clothes, and it was a matter of life and death. A lot of people were in a very bad situation, and I thought the priority should be helping them.

“But people who had been affected by the disaster were telling me to keep playing football, and that they were looking forward to watching the game. I learned one very important meaning of football from that.”

Now Ogasawara has extra support from Del Piero, a World Cup winner in 2006 and a free agent after ending 19 years of service with Juventus this summer. Recent speculation has linked Del Piero with a move to the J. League, but Ogasawara will be grateful even if the 37-year-old plays only one more game in Japan.

“Del Piero is coming all the way here to take part in this game, and I’m very thankful to him for that,” Ogasawara said. “He’s the kind of player who brings in crowds, and his participation in this game raises it up a level.

“He’s a world-famous star player, and for sure he could contribute something to the J. League. But I don’t know what his plans are. I’m sure a lot of people would love to watch him.”

Given their current problems, Antlers could certainly use someone of Del Piero’s quality. The seven-time champions currently sit 11th in the J. League table in their first season under manager Jorginho, and Ogasawara is desperate to turn things around.

“We have played around half of the season, and to be honest I’m not satisfied with our results,” he said. “But we haven’t given up on the title yet. We still have to play a lot of the teams above us, and if we can win those games then the title will be within our sights.

“I played with Jorginho here more than 10 years ago, and as a person he was someone I always respected, and as a player he won the World Cup and is regarded as one of the best fullbacks in Brazil’s history. He’s someone you can respect and rely on, so I want to win for him and deliver the title for him.”

Before thoughts return to league positions, however, Ogasawara wants to make the most of Saturday’s charity match.

“The worst thing you can do is have no interest at all,” he said. “You have to find some way that you can make a difference, and then do it.

“The J. League has shown its support by providing football equipment and facilities. There’s always some way to help. The situation changes and so do the things people need, but we want to do what we can to help.”