NARAHA, FUKUSHIMA PREF. – Bobby Charlton woke up to the bright news on Monday in Japan that his Manchester United had beaten Arsenal to close the gap on the Premier League leaders.
But after paying a visit to the J-Village — which the England legend himself named more than 10 years ago — the 1-0 win at Old Trafford suddenly didn’t seem all that important.
“It’s incidental,” Charlton said of Sunday’s victory that United badly needed to revive its campaign. “It is incidental, as much as I was very happy when I got the result.”
At the request of the Japan Football Association in the buildup to the 2002 World Cup, Charlton gave the J-Village its name, then a sparkling facility that served as a training and developmental hub for a rising soccer nation.
But now, the J-Village is nothing like Charlton remembers, after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami two years ago turned it into an operational base to tackle the ongoing crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, located a little more than 20 km away.
The emerald green pitches that Charlton once saw have been turned into car parks, equipment areas and housing lots for employees of the plant operator, Tokyo Electric Power Co.
As he was given a tour of what’s left of the J-Village by TEPCO’s people and Fukushima Vice Gov. Masao Uchibori, Charlton, with his wife Norma by his side, was visibly stunned and shaken.
And this is a man who has endured his share of tragedy, having survived the 1958 Munich air disaster that claimed 23 lives.
“I have been absolutely staggered,” said the 76-year-old, who planted a new cherry blossom tree in front of the main building at the village as part of his welcoming ceremony. “I was under the impression that everything was OK, that it was fine.
“And I can remember clearly when I first came here, the pitch was in immaculate condition. The whole place was beautiful. And today you see it, and it just seems crazy.”
“When something like this happens, a disaster of unbelievable scale, what can you say?” he continued. “I’m so pleased that some of the staff are still here.
“When I last came here, there was a stadium with terracing. I was surprised when I came here this morning because I still expected it to be here. But it’s not.”
The JFA’s very ambitious plan is to restore the J-Village to what it was in time for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, to act as a base camp for the Japanese men’s and women’s soccer teams.
JFA honorary president and former FIFA executive committee member Junji Ogura said the International Olympic Committee has asked Tokyo to stage a portion of the soccer competition in a disaster area, and Uchibori promised Monday the J-Village would be ready for sporting purposes again in seven years’ time.
But that will hinge on whether the Japanese government can bring some form of closure to the nuclear crisis, which has been a point of increasing debate since Prime Minister Shinzo Abe declared the plant was “under control” in September when Tokyo won the 2020 Olympic bid.
Charlton, though, vowed to do his part in helping resuscitate the J-Village, swearing to get both his club and country involved for the facility he personally christened.
“England will support Japan with regard to J-Village. I promise you that,” he said. “If there’s anything that can be done I will do my absolute best to try to do what everybody wants to do at this particular time — which is to get things done correctly.
“Unfortunately, my club is such an attraction to many people throughout the world, I can’t just snap my fingers and say, Manchester United will come and do this.
“All I will say is that when I tell them when I get home, I’m sure they will put a lot of effort into this the next time they come to play in Japan or in Asia.
“We’ll find the time to do it. I’m certain of that. Anyone who likes this sport, how can you not support this project? It’s just unbelievable.”