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Friday, March 18, 2011

Charity match replaces New Zealand friendly

Staff writer

Japan will take on a J. League select XI in a March 29 charity match in Osaka after New Zealand pulled out of a friendly on the same date, the Japan Football Association announced Thursday.

The JFA on Wednesday canceled a planned March 25 game against Montenegro due to the disastrous effects of last Friday's massive earthquake, but hoped to save the New Zealand fixture by switching the venue from Tokyo's National Stadium to Nagai Stadium in Osaka and donating the proceeds to relief efforts in Japan and Christchurch, which was also hit by a devastating quake last month.

That plan fell by the wayside as New Zealand Football chairman Frank van Hattum on Thursday withdrew his team citing fears over Japan's ongoing nuclear crisis, but JFA president Junji Ogura was determined not to let the opportunity go to waste.

"We talked it over for a long time and I understand their reasons for not coming," Ogura said. "But even though New Zealand are not coming, we want to put on a charity match and we have been discussing the best way to go about it.

"We want to do something to help, and we hope a lot of people will come to the match. We are looking to put together the strongest teams possible."

National team manager Alberto Zaccheroni is currently in his native Italy after leaving Japan in the aftermath of the quake, but will return to lead his side in its first match since winning the Asian Cup in Qatar in January.

JFA technical director Hiromi Hara is confident the players who were involved in that triumph will be available for selection, and stressed the importance of putting on a united front for their fans.

"This is not an A match but we had already sent letters to the clubs of 12 players abroad asking for their release," Hara said. "We will explain to the clubs that we still want the players to come. Especially at a time like this it's important that the national team and the J. League pull together for the good of the country."

The J. League season has been indefinitely postponed after only one round of the new campaign, with several clubs' training facilities and stadiums badly damaged. The makeup of the select side has yet to be determined, but J. League chairman Kazumi Ohigashi insists it will be the strongest available.

"Some clubs are idle and some have disbanded, but I will speak to each of them regarding the availability of coaches and players," he said.

New Zealand has also withdrawn its Under-17 team, which was scheduled to play a tournament in Fukuoka, but van Hattum insists the thoughts of his country are with the Japanese people.

"This has been a tough decision to make, but with the match just two weeks away and media reports reflecting such great uncertainty surrounding the nuclear situation in Japan, we believe it is prudent to err on the side of caution and withdraw our teams," van Hattum said in a statement.

"At this time emotions are running extremely high in New Zealand, and sadly the decision to proceed with a football match in this context was not feasible.

"We are extremely grateful for the understanding of the Japan Football Association in the process of taking this decision. Our hearts continue to be with the people of Japan and everyone affected by the earthquake as they focus on this period of recovery. New Zealand Football will work as hard as possible with the Japan Football Association to examine the possibility of rescheduling the fixture for a future date."

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