Training 60 kilometres away from a nuclear meltdown, high school footballers inspire Japan

The famous Japan High School Zenkoku Senshuken tournament concluded on Monday but one of the stories of the competition was a team from the earthquake-affected Tohoku region
The 90th edition of the prestigious All Japanese High School Tournament, the largest scale amateur sporting tournament in Japan, will long be remembered for the extraordinary run of Shoshi Gakuen High School from Fukushima prefecture.

Despite the footballing calendar being swamped with fixtures involving the 38 professional J-League clubs, the amateur All Japan High Tournament still holds a special place in the hearts of Japanese football fans.

Over the course of the tournament’s long and illustrious history, fans have caught a first glimpse of players such as Shunsuke Nakamura, Yuto Nagatomo and Keisuke Honda, who have all gone on to become household names in Japanese football. 

On Saturday at the Tokyo Olympic Stadium, Shoshi Gakuen were knocked out of the tournament 6-1 in the semi-finals by Yokkaicho Chuo High School of Mie prefecture, but not before capturing the attention of the nation.

After the March 11 earthquake, the students of Shoshi Gakuen, like so many other inhabitants of the Tohoku region, endured hardships of unimaginable proportions in 2011.

The team was disbanded for an indefinite period of time amid fears of nuclear meltdown at the Fukushima I Nuclear Power Plant, situated only 60 kilometres from the school. Star striker Takuya Goto, who scored three goals at the tournament, feared the worst.  “I thought I was never going to play football again with my schoolmates,” he told Mainichi Daily News.

To minimise exposure to radiation on the school’s football pitch, the team was only able to train for two hours each day.  Even in late December, to reduce radiation levels, the students were forced to scrape the top soil of the pitch with shovels before training commenced.

Despite their bleak situation, Shoshi Gakuen was able to resume qualification towards the tournament. After the earthquake, sporting clubs and schools from neighbouring prefectures kindly offered their training facilities to the team. Head coach Koji Nakamura stoutly refused the pleas from his family to return to his native Kansai prefecture and remained in Fukushima.

“Whatever happened, I was never going to leave my students. I had a responsibility to guide them towards Kokuritsu (Tokyo Olympic Stadium)”, Nakamura told Nikkan Sports.

Takuya Goto | "I thought I was never going to play football again with my schoolmates"

After their defeat in the semi-finals, Nakamura was immensely proud of his team. “I've told them to hold their heads high, we've done what we can here.  I wanted the team to become the Nadeshiko of Fukushima, and inspire our family and friends through football," he said, referring to the victorious women’s national team at the 2011 Fifa Women’s World Cup.

He was also grateful of the support his team received with a thousand-strong contingent, many being fellow Shoshi Gakuen students, travelling overnight from Fukushima to Tokyo.

As of now, none of the Shoshi Gakuen players have signed with a J-League club. It’s extremely unlikely any them will ever eclipse the stardom of a player like Keisuke Honda, let alone become professional football players.

However, the players of Shoshi Gakuen are genuine heroes in their own rights. They are a group of students who overcame loss and grief, and with sheer determination and courage they reminded us of the unquestionable power of football in uniting a devastated community and inspiring those around them.

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