“Football isn’t about life and death. It’s much more important than that.” So said Bill Shankly, the legendary Liverpool manager.
But it isn’t. That isn’t to say though, that some games aren’t more important than others, that some don’t mean more to the supporters and that some don’t have a significance that extends past the confines of the stadium in which the game is taking place. Anyone who watched the build up, match and post match coverage of Vegalta Sendai vs Kashima Antlers last Saturday would be acutely aware that there was far more going on than solely the matter of a J.League Division 1 game.
Taken in isolation, a game between Vegalta & Antlers doesn’t really hold that much significance. Kashima are usually amongst the aristocrats at the business end of the league, while Sendai (outwith their emotion-fuelled title tilt in 2012) usually hover around mid-table. But this game took place nearly five years to the day that the Tohoku area, of which Sendai is the de-facto administrative capital, was the ground zero for the East Japan earthquake & tsunami.
The stadium in which the game was played, Yurtec Stadium, was itself damaged in the earthquake and it took the efforts of supporters and the residents of Sendai to help get the club back on its feet. To list every story of heartache that befell Vegalta Sendai supporters on that day and the subsequent weeks, months & years would take too long and it would run the risk of becoming boring – something that the wider issue should never become.
A project that does it far more justice than I ever could is the “Football: Take Me Home” documentary that is centred upon the efforts of Vegalta Sendai supporters to help the club and wider community recover from the tragedy.
But on this night in Sendai, the somewhat crassly-named “earthquake recovery derby” was probably not going to end any other way than with a home victory. The game was preceded by a poignant period of silence that both sets of supporters observed impeccably (and it isn’t forgotten the Ibaraki, home of Kashima, also felt some severe damage from the events of March 11, 2011). It didn’t matter that international squad goalkeeper Yuji Rokutan was out, his replacement Kentaro Seki produced a sterling performance to keep Kashima’s talent-laden squad scoreless, including making superb saves to stop Caio scoring from close range, and tipping a Yasushi Endo lob on to the bar.
The goal that won the game came quite early on. Good work from Sendai’s Brazilian forward Wilson on the left led to a cross which found an unmarked Jun Kanakubo, and he sidefooted a volley past Sogohata for what turned out to be the winning goal. At the end, the Sendai players celebrated, knowing full well that the game/result was more than about the three points.
It meant something more. And sometimes that is the case. But it is never more important than life or death.