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Monday, March 28, 2011

Saitama J. League clubs put skills to good use to lift evacuees' spirits


Staff writer

SAITAMA — Tuesday's charity match between the national team and a J. League select XI gives soccer a high-profile platform to contribute to disaster relief efforts, but beneath the radar the desire to make a difference is just as strong.

News photo
Ball skills: Urawa Reds joined forces with Omiya Ardija to play soccer with children evacuated from Fukushima Prefecture last week. KYODO PHOTO

Donations of money and supplies from clubs all over the country have been generous in the aftermath of the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, but with the J. League mothballed until April 23, players have found themselves unable to do much more.

For Urawa Reds and Omiya Ardija, however, a chance to play a part — no matter how small — presented itself last week.

"We heard that there were people who had been evacuated from Fukushima to Saitama Super Arena because of the nuclear situation, and that the kids there didn't really have a chance to play or exercise their bodies," Urawa captain Keita Suzuki said at the club's training ground over the weekend. "We joined up with the players from Omiya Ardija and gave the kids a chance to play football.

"The mood there wasn't gloomy. There were smiling faces, and the thing that I took away from it was that the more the kids kicked the ball, the more smiling faces there were."

Urawa followed up Thursday's visit with an invitation the next day for the displaced children from Futabacho, Fukushima Pref., to use the club's Reds Land facility. Manager Zeljko Petrovic was proud that his players were able to make an impression.

"I think it's very important, because we saw how the players made the children from Fukushima happy at Saitama Super Arena," he said. "Football players and baseball players are role models for the children. When I was five or six I looked at football players in the same way. Sport is very important."

For all that soccer can do to help in times of crisis, however, Suzuki is keen to keep things in perspective.

"When you think of sports it gives you courage, and it's good to be able to send out a message like that," he said. "But first of all the most important thing is to look after the people who have been affected by all this, like what is happening at Saitama Super Arena and at primary schools and so on.

"They can't return to their normal lives at the moment, and it's necessary first of all to give them infrastructure and temporary homes. Once they've got that, then we can go onto the pitch and try to do something to cheer them up a little."

The J. League last week announced an April 23 restart to the campaign, after indefinitely postponing the season in the uncertainty that followed the disaster with only one round played. Petrovic believes having a fixed date to work toward can only be beneficial.

"It's very important for everybody, because we have to know if we start or we don't start," he said. "Everyone has their opinion. Maybe somebody says it's better not to play for three months, and then someone says it's better to start, and that life continues and maybe people will be happier and we can help people. That's no problem, but we have to know if we start or we don't start."

With one month now to prepare, Suzuki is urging everyone in the Japanese game to use it wisely.

"From the players' perspective, of course we want to start playing again as soon as possible and send a message that way," he said.

"But it's important that the football world comes together for this month and thinks about what we can do and what message we can send. The players, J. League, JFA and fans all have to think about that so that we can give those affected our support."



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