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.”