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Hometown glory: How Japanese soccer club rose above disaster

By James Montague
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Sendai was devastated by the tsunami which struck Japan in March
  • Soccer team Vegalta Sendai were left without a training ground and unable to play in their stadium
  • The side have since made an unbeaten start to the Japanese J-League season

(CNN) -- It was a promise that seemed to owe as much to optimism and sentimentality as reason.

When the notoriously passionate fans of Vegalta Sendai, a small, understated soccer club playing in Japan's J-League, stood before their team as they took on Kawasaki Frontale, they unfurled a large banner for the world to see.

"Thank you for all [our] friends," it read. "We do not lose until we regain a hometown."

Yet it is a promise that Vegalta Sendai has managed to keep. Sendai, and its football club, were devastated in Japan's earthquake and tsunami.

But since the restart of the Japanese football league, the unfashionable club has gone on a remarkable run, remaining unbeaten this season with a chance to secure their very first league title in the face of disaster.

Since it began life 23 years ago, Vegalta Sendai has led something of a quiet life, spending almost all of its time in Japan's second division, before finally wining promotion to Japan's top tier in 2009.

But on March 11, that all changed.

We have been determined to be the symbol of hope for the entire Tohoku Region
--Makoto Teguramori

When the 9.0 magnitude earthquake unleashed its full power off the northeast coast of Japan, Sendai was one of the places hardest by the subsequent tsunami. Thousands of people were left dead or missing across the country; every aspect of life was touched by tragedy, and the city's football club was no exception.

Its training ground was destroyed and the team's stadium declared unplayable, deemed to be "in ruins," according to J-League chairman Kazumi Ohigashi. The J-League was suspended, with many calling for it to be cancelled outright for that season.

"Immediately after the earthquake and tsunami we, as a team, wondered if we should, and could, continue to play soccer," the team's coach, Makoto Teguramori, told CNN.

But when the controversial decision was made to restart the league, the players and management decided that they could play an important role in getting the region back up on its feet.

"We have been determined to be the symbol of hope for the entire Tohoku Region [the northeast region of Japan's Honshu island] and to lead and encourage the reconstruction efforts with our strong performance," added Teguramori.

The team duly delivered. After the fans had displayed their banner, Vegalta Sendai beat Kawasaki Frontale 2-1. And they've kept winning. They remain unbeaten and sit just one point off the league leaders Kashiwa Reysol.

"The biggest job for us was to overcome the shock of devastation and to prepare all the players ready for the matches mentally," said Makoto Teguramori.

One player, the Brazilian striker Marquinho, was so shaken up that he couldn't continue and returned to South America.

"The departure of Marquinho was a big blow to the team. However, the other players all felt that it could not have been helped as it was due to his family matter and that the gap created by his departure would need to be filled by the rest of the team which led the entire team to a stronger and closer sense of unity," said Teguramori.

"This united spirit, we believe, is also the key to overcoming the trial of the earthquake and tsunami damages."

That Vegalta Sendai is even fulfilling fixtures is remarkable enough, but given the club's underachievement over the years, its unbeaten run is even more impressive.

"Sendai has a long history of getting so close to promotion to the J1 league [Japanese football's top tier] and could not make it," explained Koji Takao, a writer for Japan's Weekly Soccer magazine.

Thank you for all [our] friends. We do not lose until we regain a hometown
--A banner held by Vegalta Sendai fans
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"They waited, waited, and waited and after seven long years, finally they got promoted... It's the people's club as well. There's one big shareholder but the Sendai city and Miyagi prefecture own the majority of the shares.

"People in Sendai are passionate about sports. Some follow both baseball and football and it's quite unusual in Japan."

Few would deny that Vegalta Sendai would be fitting winners of what has already been an extraordinary J-League season. There are still 22 league games to play, starting with this week's match against Shimizu S-Pulse.

"The disaster in Sendai region has inspired the players, staff, and the entire Vegalta Sendai club with great performances and results," explained Afshin Ghotbi, the American-Iranian coach of Shimizu S-Pulse, who had only been in charge for one game before the March 11 disaster struck.

"The restart of the league has been important and symbolic of the courage, resilience and fighting spirit of Japanese people. The attendance has been slowly recovering...If their [Vegalta Sendai's] results can help the people in the recovery and healing process, this may a great gift of football."

Ghotbi will be hoping to end that run on Sunday, and the club themselves, whose players have been involved in the clean up operation whilst also running football training camp for homeless children, maintain that the championship is a long way away.

"If we play football, it is a first step towards normality," said Teguramori.

"As football is a team game, it is a sport where we can demonstrate strength of unity. We can inspire spectators with our spirited play and for those dedicated fans our victory would be something special to give them courage in life."

But Vegalta Sendai's fans who held their hopeful banner against Kawasaki Frontale back in April will be dreaming of the ultimate fairytale ending.

After all, a promise is a promise.

Additional reporting by Aaron Akinyemi and Olivia Yasukawa