J-League’s Vegalta providing inspiration in Sendai

For a region still coping with the aftermath of last year’s
devastating earthquake and tsunami, Vegalta Sendai’s bid for its
first J-League title is providing plenty of inspiration.

Sendai trails league leader Sanfrecce Hiroshima by just one
point heading into Saturday’s home match against Albirex Niigata. A
win against relegation-threatened Niigata would see the J-League
title decided on the last day of the season on Dec. 1.

Given Vegalta’s strong showing at home this season, coach Makoto
Teguramori likes his team’s chances on Saturday.

”The only game we lost at home this season was against Shimizu
when it hailed,” Teguramori said of the May 6 defeat. ”We rarely
lose at home so we feel confident we can keep the title chase
alive. We’ll build on the strength of our supporters to fight to
the end.”

Sendai was the J-League team hardest hit by the March, 2011,
9.0-magnitude earthquake and tsunami that followed.

The team’s home stadium sustained major damage, forcing it to
delay its home opener by more than a month. The city of Sendai’s
infrastructure was crippled by a flooded airport and a badly
damaged port.

Sendai finished fourth in 2011, the best result in the club’s
history. Many predicted a letdown in 2012 for a team whose success
was attributed to the emotion of the post-tsunami period, but that
hasn’t been the case.

”We were determined to be the symbol of hope for the entire
region,” Teguramori said. ”Many people saw us as a reason to
live, so we have tried to prove them right. By winning we can
encourage them.”

The team has never previously come close to winning the J-League
title. They joined the J-League’s second division in 1999 and were
first promoted to the top flight in 2002, but went back down the
following season. They were promoted again for the 2010 season.

Prior to its success in 2011, Vegalta had spent six of the
previous seven seasons in the second tier.

Teguramori’s squad put together an impressive 11-game unbeaten
run from June 6 to Aug. 4 this season and has constantly kept the
pressure on Hiroshima, a team also looking for its first league
title.

The 2011 earthquake was the strongest recorded in Japan’s
history, and set off a tsunami that swelled to more than 65 feet
(20 meters) in some sections along the northeastern coast,
destroying tens of thousands of homes and causing widespread
destruction.

All told, some 325,000 people are still in temporary
housing.

The coach and his players were hands-on in helping with the
disaster recovery.

Teguramori was at the stadium when the earthquake hit. It was
the day before the team’s scheduled first match of the season and
the 44-year-old coach was holding a scouting meeting when the
ceiling above him collapsed.

While many fled the area, Teguramori and his staff remained
behind to help clear rubble. The club’s players helped where they
could at evacuation centers in the region.

Sendai, a regional capital of more than 1 million people, was
better equipped than most coastal communities to deal with the
disaster but mountains of rubble still remain as a stark reminder
of the tough challenges ahead.

After the disaster several foreign athletes in Japan, including
Sendai’s Brazilian striker Marquinhos, headed home. Marquinhos has
since returned to play for Yokohama F Marinos but was so distraught
after the disaster he couldn’t stay in Japan, which was also
dealing with a nuclear crises at the Fukushima Dai-Ichi plant.

Last year’s success was attributed to the best defense in the
J-League which conceded just 25 goals in 34 matches.

This season, the squad is much more aggressive in attack and is
second in goals scored with 57. Strikers Shingo Akamine and
Brazilian Wilson have scored 13 goals each.

Sendai regularly sells out the 19,000-seat Yurtec Stadium and
will be expecting another large and vocal crowd on the weekend.

Like the team’s manager, Sendai’s loyal supporters remain
confident of keeping the title dream alive.

”If they can keep it going it would be a huge boost to the
region,” said 37-year-old shop clerk Kenta Kawagishi. ”This team
has given us a lot of encouragement in some pretty difficult
times.”