The good results may have dried up a little of late, but Vegalta Sendai are playing for more than just points this season.
Last month I was at Hitachi Dai for the J.League game between Kashiwa Reysol and Vegalta Sendai, and before the match I spoke to a few Vegalta fans about their club’s incredible form since the events of March 11th.
I wanted to know just how much they thought the team were being spurred on by the disaster during their spectacular 12-game unbeaten run at the start of the season and, vice-versa, how the players’ efforts were motivating those most affected.
Two supporters I chatted with, Mihoko Konno and Seiko Abe, were in no doubt that a productive cycle of encouragement had been produced by the tragedy.
“The expressions on the players’ faces are different,” Konno-san said. “Watching them really fight in the games is encouraging, and I think they’re giving hope to Sendai and to Miyagi.”
Abe-san agreed and, paying reference to the number of late goals the team had scored, drew a parallel between the on-pitch struggles and those of a far more serious nature.
“I think there’s the message that you shouldn’t give up until the very end. If you lose emotionally, that’s the end.”
I’d already heard many good things about the passionate home support at Yurtec Stadium – one of only two in J1, along with Grampus’ Toyota, that I hadn’t been to – so I decided to make my way to Sendai for the return fixture with Reysol to see for myself.
Even before arriving at the stadium (after a lunch of gyuutan, of course), I could tell the place was unique – it’s right there, basically at the station.
While this is true of most football grounds in England I was caught by surprise as I’ve become used to having to walk miles before getting to J.League stadiums. Not having to do that on this occasion meant I was already a fan.
Then, just a couple of minutes later inside the ground, I was even more impressed. The pitch is right next to the stands and it became apparent that as well as the emotional bond between fans and players, there is also a physical closeness between the two at every home game.
This reminded me of a comment by another supporter I’d spoken to in Kashiwa.
We were discussing Marquinhos’ departure as a result of fears over the nuclear situation, when Junichiro Kawamoto made a very astute observation.
“Society’s smallest unit is the family,” he said. “When families expand, it becomes a town, which become cities; so if you’re concerned about your family I think (Marquinhos’ decision to leave was) an obvious choice.”
And observing the fans, staff and volunteers of the Vegalta family doing all they could to raise money and morale provided a wonderful example of just how close-knit communities can pull together in times of need.
There was an authenticity to their efforts, and while taking some pictures on the concourse I was asked to write a message on a fan which, along with thousands of others, would be sent to children in Kessunuma.
As I struggled with the kanji (“This is support from England. Sending you our best wishes.”) a young boy next to me offered his help, writing them extra large for me to copy.
I was then enthusiastically thanked by the man co-ordinating the scheme, and told with genuine feeling that a message from England would be received with great excitement.
Shortly afterwards I witnessed another act of altruism – although this one possibly had slightly ulterior motives.
As the teams warmed up I spotted a ballboy flinging himself passionately about as stray shots fizzed wide of the goal.
Initially I thought he was perhaps a goalkeeper and was getting in some extra training, but then I noticed (I hadn’t spotted them before, honest) that he was in fact putting his body on the line to prevent the team of cheerleaders behind him from getting hit!
Soon afterwards I had shivers down my spine as I stood in front of the home fans as ‘Country Road’ rang out.
The game itself sadly failed to live up to the rest of the experience, although one aspect of the 0-0 was constant; Sendai weren’t defeated.