In the decade since the Great East Japan Earthquake, the solidarity between J. League fans and the Tohoku region has been expressed in countless ways — from banners stretched across stands to charity auctions and donation drives.

On Saturday, it came in the form of 5,000 servings of cup noodles delivered to Yurtec Stadium in Sendai — each accompanied by a handwritten message from a Kawasaki Frontale fan or player to fans of Vegalta Sendai.

Such a gesture would have been unimaginable 10 years earlier. After all, even though their supporters were generally on friendly terms, the two teams had only contested the same division four times since joining the J. League in 1999.

But an emotional encounter — just six weeks after the March 11 disaster that claimed the lives of at least 15,899 and left an indelible mark on northeastern Japan — forever changed the relationship between the two clubs.

That fateful game took place on April 23, 2011, marking the resumption of the J. League’s first division following a six-week suspension enacted in response to damage sustained at a number of stadiums — including Yurtec — as well as unstable power supplies in eastern Japan due to the crisis at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant.

Frontale and Vegalta players hold a moment of silence before their J. League first-division game on April 23, 2011, in Kawasaki. | KYODO
Frontale and Vegalta players hold a moment of silence before their J. League first-division game on April 23, 2011, in Kawasaki. | KYODO

Unable to play at its home stadium or even train at its usual practice facility until late March, Vegalta would have been forgiven for failing to put up a strong effort against Frontale.

Instead, 15,030 fans at Todoroki Stadium witnessed J. League history, as Sendai — spurred by 2,000 of their own cheering supporters — fought back to secure a 2-1 win through goals by Yoshiaki Ota and Jiro Kamata, the latter with just three minutes left in regulation.

“When it ended, I was overcome with emotion and started to cry,” Vegalta manager Makoto Teguramori said after the match. “When we equalized we found momentum and we had our supporters behind us. As a team from Tohoku and the disaster area we were carrying the hopes of everyone across Japan, and maybe that all went into the ball and helped us win the game.”

The emotions felt by Teguramori had reverberated throughout the rain-swept ground from before kickoff, as Frontale supporters sang Sendai chants and presented their opposites with a giant flag that read “Forza Sendai” and arrived covered in handwritten messages of support.

After the final whistle, it was the fans clad in yellow who let out tears of joy under another banner that read: “Thank you to all of our friends. We won’t lose until we get our hometown back.”

Since that fateful April afternoon, the two clubs have maintained their relationship — even collaborating on commemorative merchandise — and Kawasaki has deepened its ties with the Tohoku region. In late 2015, the club entered a friendship pact with Rikuzentakata, a city in Iwate Prefecture that had been virtually flattened by the tsunami. The following summer, Frontale hosted the “Takada Smile Festival” at a local park, featuring a special friendly game against Vegalta as well as a charity concert and children’s soccer clinics run by then-manager Yahiro Kazama.

Saturday’s game at Yurtec, promoted as a “revival support match” by Vegalta, should have represented an afternoon of catharsis for the two clubs. But with Japan’s second state of emergency still in effect across the greater Tokyo area, Frontale supporters were not allowed to travel north for the game under the J. League’s anti-coronavirus guidelines.

Instead, Kawasaki Kazoku, the club’s main active support group, reached out to famous local eatery Ganso New Tantanmen, which agreed to donate enough instant noodle cups to distribute to over half of the Yurtec crowd. Kazoku members collected messages from fans at Frontale’s home games to attach to each cup, with the team’s players all contributing their own handwritten notes.

On Saturday, employees from the Sendai branches of two top Frontale sponsors — Fujitsu and SMBC Nikko — distributed the cups at the gates.

“We had been looking forward to coming to Yurtec in great numbers and reaffirming the bonds we share with Vegalta supporters,” Kawasaki Kazoku wrote in a statement on its website. “We hope that our beloved friends who support Vegalta will accept this gift as proof of those bonds.”

Vegalta fans may have been less than pleased with Saturday’s result, a 5-1 thrashing at the hands of the reigning champion. But perhaps that didn’t mean as much as the two banners that were displayed in front of Sendai’s active supporter area — one representing Vegalta, and the other representing Frontale.

“I spent the entire match thinking about the significance of those banners being displayed together,” retired Frontale legend Kengo Nakamura tweeted on Saturday. “Thank you to the players, staff and supporters of both teams. I hope this wonderful relationship will continue.”

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