How wonderfully fitting that Vegalta Sendai should pull off a comeback worthy of the headlines in the first round of J. League action since the earthquake of 11 March wrought devastation across much of the club’s home city and surrounding area. International midfielder Kunimitsu Sekiguchi had played the match – away to Kawasaki Frontale – in specially prepared white boots bearing the Japanese kanji 絆 kizuna, representing the ‘bonds’ that have brought people together over the past seven weeks. The mass of travelling supporters, many of whom will have experienced personal tragedy and upheaval through the disaster, displayed a banner that translates as ‘To all our friends, thank you. Until we have our hometown back again, we will never be defeated’. They were greeted by their hosts behind the opposite goal at Todoroki with an enormous flag reading ‘Forza Sendai’ and graffitied with hundreds of signatures and messages of support.
Before kick-off, the written sentiments were echoed in song, with each set of fans chanting the name of their opponents before joining together for a moving rendition of the Take Me Home, Country Roads melody. Perhaps the occasion had an effect on what unfolded as a rather turgid first half, but after falling behind before the interval, the Sendai players were roused by a slightly fortuitous Yoshiaki Ota equaliser 17 minutes from time. A quarter of an hour later, when Jiro Kamata rose to head home another teasing set piece from Ryang Yong-Gi, it was the first time in their history that Vegalta had come from behind to win a top flight match away from home. Their manager, Makoto Teguramori, retired back to the bench mid-interview with SkyPerfecTV after the game as he struggled to hold back the tears. Todoroki Stadium has seen its share of drama over the years – albeit often concerning the visitors to Japanese football’s perennial bridesmaids – but this was another day that will live long in the memory.
The first round of domestic fixtures since opening weekend certainly provided more than enough to fill the sports pages. A linesman’s flag in second half stoppage time against Rui Komatsu, introduced as a substitute only moments earlier, meant that Cerezo Osaka had to settle for a disappointing goalless draw at Montedio Yamagata, but theirs was the best result of Japan’s four AFC Champions League (ACL) representatives. Indeed, the team in pink – or white, on this occasion – weren’t just the sole member of the quartet to muster a point, but the only to avoid defeat by three goals. City rivals Gamba had remained unbeaten in 14 matches against Sanfrecce Hiroshima dating back to 2001, but went down 4-1 at the Big Arch. Kashima Antlers suffered a 3-0 ‘home’ reverse against Yokohama F Marinos at the National Stadium in Tokyo. Champions Nagoya Grampus lost by the same scoreline away to Urawa Reds.
With an ongoing Asian calendar meaning that the ACL participants were the only clubs to have remained in competitive action since the Tohoku earthquake, it had been theorised by many that they should benefit from increased match sharpness. As it transpires, Grampus et al have likely instead suffered from the decidedly on-again, off-again nature of their springtime programmes. Performances in the ACL have certainly been far from spectacular, even if at least three of the four should still make the last 16 (ironically, the one side currently outside the qualification places is Cerezo). By contrast, the other 14 J1 clubs had been able to focus solely on preparing for this past weekend and appeared all the fresher for it. Continental football takes its toll even on far richer European clubs, and while there may still be a slightly higher concentration of stars at the top end of last season’s table, the results of the last two days auger well for the continued competitiveness of the J. League as a whole.
In any case, it is most refreshing that all of the talking points can now stem from events on the pitch again. Ever since Easter weekend – admittedly an irrelevant designation in this country – was confirmed as the resumption date for league activity, there has perhaps been an unhealthy amount of time to devote to the unavoidably ugly debate over the conditions of Japan’s participation in the Copa America. Everybody seems agreed that the decision to take part after all is essentially a very good thing, but few are keen to foot the metaphorical bill. Now we have six J. League matchdays scheduled for July instead of the original one, clubs must find the dividing line between patriotic support and protecting their own interests.
Reportedly, the Japanese clubs have asked that a strong majority of the Copa America squad – perhaps 15 of the 22 – be recruited from overseas. For the ‘integrity’ of the domestic competition, of course. FIFA and CONMEBOL have offered their cooperation to this end, but VfB Stuttgart have already explicitly stated their reluctance to release Shinji Okazaki for what would be his third international tournament in little over a year. Meanwhile, a highlight of the J1 members’ conference earlier this month was the Jubilo Iwata representative likening the enforced absence of Ryoichi Maeda and Yuichi Komano to playing chess without a queen and a bishop. How Maeda would feel about being called a queen, one cannot be sure, but the tide of opinion apparently shifted slightly later on when Gamba president Kikuo Kanamori claimed he would have few qualms about sending Yasuhito Endo to Argentina.
Discussions can now continue in the background while the rest of us find more worthwhile pursuits – including three more J. League matchdays – with which to distract ourselves throughout the Golden Week holiday. This column will return in a fortnight when the season will, at last, have begun to take shape.