Before travelling down to Osaka for the Japan v. J.League ‘Team as One’ match at the start of the week, I wrote about the importance of the game for Weekly Soccer Magazine.
Nagai Stadium is certain to be an emotional place on Tuesday night.
While I was very disappointed with New Zealand’s decision to back out of their scheduled game with the Samurai Blue, I think that it is crucial this match goes ahead and feel that the time is right for Japan to come together to not only remember all of the victims of the tragic events of the past few weeks, but also to look forward.
Indeed, if New Zealand had honoured their commitment they would have found themselves in a no-win situation. Most likely they would have come up against a hugely fired-up Samurai Blue team who would have been more determined than ever to put in a performance and secure a good result in front of their own fans. Had the Kiwis been able to brave this onslaught and been victorious themselves though, it would have been hugely dispiriting for their hosts.
Now, with the match set to be contested between a full strength national team and a selection of the biggest stars currently playing in the J.League it is sure to be stirring occasion for everybody packed inside the ground and the many millions watching at home – particularly when Kimigayo strikes up.
Such was the desire to be involved in the match and to help out in any way possible, J.League chairman Kazumi Ohigashi revealed that he had to turn down several requests from players to be included in the ‘Team as One’ squad.
Speaking at JFA house when announcing the selection Ohigashi said, “Many players wanted to join but we only had room for 20 members so I was very sorry that I had to refuse some players.”
With competition so fierce it is little surprise that the chosen few were so eager to accept their call-ups, with everybody desperate to do what little they can to help out in the current circumstances.
Ohigashi confirmed this keenness – including on the parts of players from Kashima Antlers and Vegalta Sendai, two of the most affected areas:
“All the players said yes to our offer as soon as possible. Sendai and Kashima experienced a lot of damage but their players said ‘ok, and thank you for the offer’.”
This enthusiasm to be a part of the event was shared by supporters, with tickets at the 50,000 capacity venue selling out in under 2 hours – an incredible feat.
The chairman’s rationale for the evening, which will be shared by players, supporters and media alike, is simple:
“This match I want to be brave and positive for the victims,” he said.
One man who is certain to embody this spirit is Kazu, who Ohigashi revealed was the first man to confirm his availability for the match.
Employing Kazu’s star status was a smart move on the part of the J.League, and the 44-year-old – who was an unannounced presence at the ‘Team as One’ press conference – sparked a flurry of activity upon arrival as photographers scurried around to get the perfect shot.
He expressed relief at being given an opportunity to do something to aid the relief efforts, however small, having experienced a similar helplessness to most of the population as the tragic events unfolded.
“After the earthquake I was thinking ‘what can I do to help?'” Kazu said. “This was a very difficult question for me. I wanted to do something to improve the situation through football, and so when I got the offer to join this charity match I was delighted to have the opportunity to cooperate with the Japanese soccer world.”
When asked if he had a message for those affected most deeply by the tragedy Kazu replied.
“This is a very difficult and very serious situation. Maybe I can try to imagine how they feel but I think their real situation is beyond that – it is unvbelievable.”
And this is something that everybody involved should bear in mind. Real people have experienced, and are still experiencing, real suffering and this game is merely a diversion to raise much-needed funds and to provide some brief respite from the current difficulties. It does not mark the end of the situation but might just provide a point from which the country can start to pick up the pieces and begin to look to the future.