King Kazu sparkles as Japan remembers victims of Tohoku earthquake
For 90 minutes, the people of Japan were invited to smile yesterday evening as the football community paid tribute to the victims of the devastating Tohoku earthquake and tsunami.
In place of the previously scheduled friendly with New Zealand, the Japan national team played a high-profile charity match against a J. League ‘Team as One’ wearing the yellow and blue colours of the FIFA Fair Play logo – and, incidentally, of the stricken Vegalta Sendai club – in front of a sell-out crowd of over 40,000 people at the Nagai Stadium in Osaka.
First-half goals from Yasuhito Endo and Shinji Okazaki ultimately gave Japan a 2-1 win, but the result mattered little on an emotionally-charged occasion as fans of various clubs across the country mixed and sang together in the spirit of national unity.
Indeed, the undoubted highlight was a 30-minute cameo from legendary striker Kazuyoshi Miura – still active with J2 side Yokohama FC at the age of 44 – who crowned off the evening with a superbly taken consolation goal for Team as One.
Though remaining loyal to the largely youthful playing resources that achieved Asian Cup success in Qatar two months ago, Japan boss Alberto Zaccheroni used the occasion to test his famous 3-4-3 formation as an attacking alternative to the contemporary 4-2-3-1. Wing-backs Yuto Nagatomo and Atsuto Uchida were given freedom to roam ahead of a defensive trio of Yasuyuki Konno, Maya Yoshida, and Masahiko Inoha. Ryoichi Maeda led the front line alongside Okazaki and Keisuke Honda.
The opposing eleven selected by Nagoya Grampus coach Dragan Stojković had an average age of just over 30 and consisted largely of players that had contributed to the national team under previous managers Zico and Takeshi Okada. Yuji Nakazawa and Marcus Tulio Tanaka resumed their World Cup defensive partnership in front of J. League MVP Seigo Narazaki, with Shinji Ono in midfield and Yoshito Okubo supporting Hisato Sato in attack.
North Korean Ryang Yong-Gi of Vegalta Sendai was the sole non-Japanese player in the side, and joined Toru Araiba and Mitsuo Ogasawara of Kashima Antlers as representatives of clubs directly affected by the disaster.
An abundance of attacking wide players enabled the Samurai Blue to consistently find space on the flanks to thrill the audience with a series of fast-paced attacks from the outset. The opening goal arrived after just 13 minutes via a trademark Endo free-kick from 25 yards, after Honda had been felled by Kengo Nakamura, and was marked by the entire Japan squad gathering on the touchline to salute the skies.
CSKA Moscow star Honda was then frustrated on the counter attack twice in quick succession, before finding space to make it third time lucky with a through ball that bisected the Team as One defensive pair and rolled perfectly into the path of Okazaki. The Stuttgart forward banished the memory of his Bundesliga goal drought with a confident dinked finish past Narazaki.
Wholesale substitutions at half time predictably shifted the flow of the match, with both managers keeping their pledge to field every one of the combined 46 players available to them. The more experienced Team as One gradually came into the ascendancy, with Sendai midfielder Kunimitsu Sekiguchi rolling a shot narrowly outside the left-hand post of Japan’s third goalkeeper, Masaaki Higashiguchi.
Finally, with ten minutes remaining, the moment that everyone in the crowd had been eagerly anticipating arrived when Tulio rose above Daiki Iwamasa to head the ball into the path of ‘King Kazu’. The J. League’s oldest ever player took the ball into his stride, fired a wonderfully composed finish beyond the advancing Higashiguchi, and delighted his public further with – as promised – a ‘Kazu dance’ in celebration.
Miura was the undoubted centre of attention after the game, and offered the following words in support of those affected by the earthquake.
“Wherever I go, I am constantly reminded that I am 44, but I have never given up on anything in football and it is my hope that those people who have been through so much pain recently will never give up either. This is the message that I hope has been conveyed through tonight’s game.”
Zaccheroni paid tribute to the Team as One hero, claiming “Today is the first time in my career that I have ever been so happy to concede a goal.”
Opposite number Stojković said “This game was important for the people who have suffered a lot. It showed a really strong message that they are not alone – that we are all together at this very difficult moment.”
Donations to support relief efforts for the earthquake and tsunami in Japan are still being accepted by the Red Cross and a number of other charities.
Japanese Red Cross Society: http://www.jrc.or.jp/
British Red Cross: http://www.redcross.org.uk/JapanTsunami
UNICEF Japan: http://www.unicef.or.jp/
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