By Hideto Shimizu
Ethiopia, the east-African nation located in what's known as the Cradle of Civilization.
At the national history museum in the capital of Addis Ababa, the fossilized remains of 'Lucy', a pre-human thought to be over three million years old, are on display.
In addition to being known for its exports of high-quality coffee, Ethiopia also boasts a UNESCO World Heritage site in the rock-hewn churches of Lalibela, which is located 2,400 meters above sea level and boasts a population of 20,000. We arrived to this town after a full day of flying from Japan that required two transfers along the way.
From January 8 through 10, 2012 J-League runners-up Vegalta Sendai will hold a football seminar as well as the Vegalta Cup featuring local teams. This will be the second time this event has been held, following the first in 2011. Technical director Kazunori Inoue and Vegalta Academy coach Hideaki Takahashi have come on this journey.
|[Ethiopia] has no particularly strong ties with Japan. Few Japanese would be able to point out Ethiopia on a map, or say what language they speak or what religion they practice.|
But why has Vegalta come to Ethiopia? The country has no particularly strong ties with Japan. Few Japanese would be able to point out Ethiopia on a map, or say what language they speak or what religion they practice. The countries are in separate confederations as well; the AFC for Japan, the CAF for Ethiopia.
It's natural to consider this to be an outrageous story. So to understand our journey, we must introduce the Futaro Forest Fund and representative Kaori Niizuma, who has spearheaded the project.
Lalibela has suffered in recent years due to haphazard deforestation and animal grazing, with desertification spreading quickly. Residents, faced with the loss of their forest, have been forced numerous times to relocate to another forested area and re-start their lives. While Ethiopia's government has declared that the forest is the country's lifeblood, what has been lost cannot be returned so easily. The Futaro Forest Fund looks to restore Ethiopia's forest and has already planted two million trees.
Incidentally, the NPO's name comes from a baby owl that Niizuma rescued from abuse during a previous visit to Lalibela. With the local ground turned red through deforestation, she searched for three weeks before finding a suitable location to release 'Futaro' back into the wild. Thus the Fund was created in the hopes that it would bring such land back to Lalibela.
Niizuma, who hails from Soma in Fukushima Prefecture, began by giving lectures across Japan in order to raise both awareness and funds, and received grants from JICA and other groups.
|Four years ago, Niizuma decided to reform the Futaro Forest Fund into an NPO that more strongly represented the Tohoku region.|
But four years ago, Niizuma decided to reform the Futaro Forest Fund into an NPO that more strongly represented the Tohoku region. But how could the charity best become recognised and supported by local residents? That question was answered by a collaboration between Futaro's Forest and Vegalta Sendai.
Grassroots action requires effective access to local residents, and Niizuma soon realised that she could reach out to a great number of Tohokuites at local football stadiums. When considering how best to spread word of the Futaro Forest Fund and the deforestation crisis in Lalibela, Vegalta Sendai emerged as the top candidate through Niizuma's friendship with front office employee Miwako Saito.
The collaboration, which operates under the slogan "Enjoy Football, Enjoy Planting," exemplifies the J-League's focus on grassroots cooperation between club and community. But it's become about more than rescuing Ethiopia's forests. Football is the most popular sport on the African continent. But because of the poor economic conditions in Ethiopia, many Lalibela children play barefoot, or fashion crude balls out of bundled-up clothing. So when coaches from Japan come to offer instruction and hold a tournament, local football lovers assemble in great numbers.
|Yet their activities don't end on the pitch. After the first Vegalta Cup, the championship team stayed with Vegalta staffers to plant saplings|
Yet their activities don't end on the pitch. After the first Vegalta Cup, the championship team stayed with Vegalta staffers to plant saplings. "We love football, but we'll keep planting as much as we can," locals told Vegalta staffers afterwards, in yet another example of the influence that football holds across the globe. The saplings the group planted were grown in paper cups on which Vegalta supporters had written messages of support. Through their mutual love of football, citizens of the two far-away nations were united.
In covering this project, I have discovered the incredible potential that only the most popular sport in the world can hold. Next time, I'll report on our activities in Ethiopia.
Goal.com Japan Chief Editor Hideto Shimizu has published the books “100 Ways to Enjoy Watching Football," "100 Practice Methods for Defenders and Goalkeepers," and "120 Set Piece Tactics," among others. He can be reached on Twitter at @kaizokuhide