Japan united as charity games are held to raise funds for disaster victims

Goal.com's Cesare Polenghi looks at how charity games held in order to support victims of the tsunami and earthquake that devastated Japan two weeks ago have helped
As the J-League is on hold until April 23 because of the recent dramatic events that took place in Japan, two charity games between the four Kansai professional clubs took place this past weekend.

Kyoto Sanga hosted Cerezo Osaka on Saturday, while Gamba Osaka and Vissel Kobe met on the following Sunday. More than 20,000 attended the two events. All revenues from games’ tickets and merchandise created for these specific occasions will be devolved to the victims of the natural disaster that hit Japan on March 11.

Supporters from all four teams filled the stands with banners sending messages of support, while outside the stadiums players and football personalities stood in the cold for hours with boxes to collect donations. Among them were Hiroaki Morishima and Ryuzo Morioka, who represented Japan at the 2002 World Cup.

Saturday's game was followed in silence by both Kyoto Sanga and Cerezo Osaka's supporters. Only before and after the match, chants were sung to cheer the teams from the region that was hit harder by the earthquake and the tsunami: Vegalta Sendai, Kashima Antlers, Mito Hollyhock and Tochigi SC.

As the players thanked the fans after a game well-fought on both sides, the whole stadium chanted "Nippon, Nippon," a moment that was followed by a long applause.

Unified | Fans unfurl a banner displaying a clear message

Hiroki Yoshida, the historical leader of Sanga supporters said: "Today it was not about the result, so we and Cerezo's fans talked before the game and decided just to watch it quietly."

"Sport embraces a huge chunk of Japanese society," added Yoshida. "So through football we and the players want to send a message of hope, and that's why we were here today and we are planning more events."

Supporters of all four Kansai teams will in fact meet in a charity Futsal tournament that will take place in Kobe on April 9.

On Sunday, Gamba Osaka's stadium was almost sold-out, and home fans decided to support their team as usual. "We are very lucky that nothing happened here and we can come to a soccer game," said a girl called Mihono, who defined herself as a dedicated Gamba fan.

"Sport embraces a huge chunk of Japanese society. So through football we and the players want to send a message of hope, and that's why we were here today and we are planning more events" - Hiroki Yoshida, Sanga supporter

"We want today to be a positive day," added her companion Yuu. "So we are chanting for Gamba, but we cheer Vissel Kobe as well for being here."

Her companion Kaori concluded on a sorry note, "I have friends in Yamagata prefecture who at the moment are forced to live in a shelter, they're not doing so good, you know."

Sadly, there are many who have been even less fortunate than Kaori's friends. In fact, both Sanga and Vissel supporters reported they have heard that "hundreds" Vegalta Sendai "regular" fans have perished in the disaster.

The game in Osaka as well was intense but permeated by a spirit of loyalty and reciprocal respect. Players of both teams walked together around the pitch after the match to thank the supporters.

In spite of the difficult present, Japanese football's spirit is high and there are great expectations for the game that will be played between the mational team and a selection of J-Leaguers on March 29.

Probably nothing synthesizes the hopes of the soccer fans and the people of Japan at large more than the simple words of Gamba's Hayato Sasaki after the game.

"I have a big favor to ask you," he addressed the supporters on the stands and those who watched the game on TV. "Believe in Japan, believe in the future."

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