Sometimes when it feels like nothing can be done, even the smallest gestures can go a long way.
I would like to dedicate this week’s column to the victims of the tragic earthquake and tsunami of March 11th and offer my deepest condolences to their familes, friends and anybody affected by the catastrophe. Football is entirely irrelevant at times like this.
Who wins and loses, whether the referee was right or wrong, and if a player stays or goes are all put into stark perspective by such horrific events, and it has been incredibly difficult to give the game a moment’s thought over the past 10 days.
The overwhelming popularity of the sport around the world means that it does have the potential to help though, if only in the smallest of ways.
Take, for example, the solidarity shown by Japanese players in Europe who were in action the day after the earthquake and tsunami struck. Although they were unable to assist – like most of us – in physical or practical ways, they were unanimous in their offers of moral support for their country, and had their sentiments echoed by teammates and opponents alike.
Yuto Nagatomo was the first to play and was joined in wearing a black armband in respect of the victims by his Internazionale teammates and the players of Brescia. Samuel Eto’o, upon scoring Inter’s goal, celebrated by poignantly hugging the Japanese fullback.
Nagatomo confessed he found it difficult to focus before the game but said he hoped his participation could, in some way, provide strength to those back home. “It was terrible. I felt totally shocked. Before the game I was totally confused as I kept thinking about what was happening in Japan” he was quoted as saying on Goal.com.
“I managed to set aside all the negative thoughts and I focused on the game (though). I thought that being a good soccer player I could give courage to my people.”
Tomoaki Makino, meanwhile, has been using the medium of Twitter to lend support to his compatriots. “At times like this we need to get together, hand in hand. It’s just a little but I think it can give everyone strength,” he sent on the evening of the tragedy.
Although several Japanese are absent, there are foreigners in Japan who are doing their best to fill in. Machida Zelvia coach Ranko Popovic, for example, has expressed his desire to help the country recover from the situation. “I love the Japanese people, they are incredible.” he said. “I am Japanese now, I am part of this. If you are part of the good times you must also be part of the bad times too. We must give our maximum, mental and physical.”
I have been hugely impressed and moved by the reaction and behaviour of the Japanese people during this difficult time and commend the great flexibility and adaptation that everybody has shown. This extends to the J.League and JFA who have acted swiftly and sensibly to postpone all domestic league football for the foreseeable future as well as the scheduled national team friendly against Montenegro in Shizuoka on Friday.
I also wholeheartedly agree with the decision to keep the March 29th fixture in place, and believe this will be an excellent chance to show solidarity and pay respect to the victims. It will also provide an opportunity to raise huge funds for the recovery effort, although this would have been even truer if New Zealand were making the journey to Osaka having recently experienced a similar tragedy of their own.
Popovic agrees, and draws upon his own playing days during the war in former Yugoslavia to demonstrate the healing power football can have, even in the toughest of times. “All of our hearts and souls are with the Japanese people and I know they have more important things to think about but it is important to get back to normal as quickly as possible, and football can help to do that,” he explains.
“Everybody is different, but I experienced the same in Serbia in the war – I lost my house – but playing gave me the power. “Now we have to be a unit and all of the world is with Japan. People where I am from especially understand. We know disaster and catastrophe and how it feels to lose lives and houses. Now we must work for the people who have lost their lives and those that are left behind. This is our message.”