On Sunday June 26, Roasso Kumamoto scored a last kick winner to beat FC Gifu 3-2 away from home. In a regular season, you’d think it would be one of the most noteworthy events, but this has been no ordinary season for Roasso – not by a long shot. From the high of their best ever start to a season, to the low of trying to recover from the horrendous earthquake which struck the city of Kumamoto, this is the story of Roasso Kumamoto’s extraordinary 2016 season.

April 9th 2016. Roasso are beaten 1-2 at home against the division’s surprise package Renofa Yamaguchi. Prior to the season, this might have been seen as a bit of an upset, but with the way the men in bright orange from Yamaguchi had performed to that point, it wasn’t a shock. This result came on the back of another home defeat the previous week, a slightly more predictable one in the form of a 0-2 defeat vs Shimizu S-Pulse.

But those two results were outliers in a start to the season that surprised most observers of J2. Prior to the S-Pulse game, Roasso had taken 13 points from their opening five games and had them being whispered about in relation to the play-offs.

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Koki Kiyotake, brother of the then soon-to-be Sevilla player Hiroshi had enjoyed a superb start to the season, netting four times in those games, with two of those goals turning out to be winning goals. The defence was looking sound – a very un-Kumamoto like development – thanks to the Ueda-Sonoda partnership in the centre. The two defeats weren’t ideal, but they were still in a pretty nice position after the seventh game of the J2 season. 

On April 15th at around 9:26pm, a magnitude 6.4 earthquake struck at a shallow depth directly underneath Kumamoto. For many people living in Japan, earthquakes are a fact of life, just something that you deal with when they happen. Most people who have been in Japan for any length f time have experienced an earthquake or three – although admittedly not all people have experienced one of such magnitude at such shallow depth.

The foreshock, as it is known in the meta-language of seismology, wasn’t seen as a foreshock when it occurred. Why would it? There are no tell-tale signs that specific earthquakes are a pre-cursor to much greater dangers to come. According to the most up to date statistics, 9 people lost their life as a result of the April 15th quake, and around 40,000 people had to vacate their unsafe properties/areas.

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Unfortunately (if that is not too light a word to use) that was just the beginning of a week-long period of ground reverberations and tremors, the largest of which came just after 1am on April 16th, when a magnitude 7.1 earthquake struck directly under the city of Kumamoto itself causing an additional 40 people to lose their life. Infrastructure was highly compromised by this event – the much heralded Kyushu Shinkansen, a beacon of connectivity to one of Japan’s most rural prefectures was shut down due to concerns over tracks & the structural state of the recently revamped Kumamoto Station; roads around the hilly/mountainous areas outside of the main city were inundated with landslides & flooding; Kumamoto airport was shutdown due to the terminal building suffering damage and bridges that connected Kumamoto with Oita, its neighbour to the east, were severely damaged, and in the case of the Aso Ohashi Bridge on Route 365 the bridge just simply disintegrated into the violent, mud-coloured currents of the Kurokawa river. 

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As the scale of what had happened in Kumamoto and surrounding areas became apparent, it became clear that Roasso were in no state to play games. Their players had been affected by the quake in numerous ways. Some players suffered damage to their homes & cars, some players were unable to move around due to the damage to roads and infrastructure, while the team’s Umakana stadium, itself damaged by the quake, became a staging centre for the post quake recovery efforts.

Since the quake, Roasso Kumamoto’s entire squad have pitched in with efforts to help the local people affected by the events in the area. Players have served food to people made homeless, helped distribute supplies to the neediest people, organized group activities with people of various ages in order to get them active again. Front and centre of this effort has been the veteran striker Seiichiro Maki.

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Maki has had a long and distinguished career in football with spells at JEF United, Tokyo Verdy and clubs in Russia & China. He is proud owner of 38 international caps, scoring eight goals in those appearances. When he signed for Kumamoto, he probably thought he was just winding his career down in a very pleasant part of the country. The earthquakes of mid-April 2016 put him in a completely different position. Probably not by his choosing, he was seen as the un-official spokesperson of, not just the club, but increasingly the area itself and it was to he that people looked to for updates on the club.

“There are still people suffering as a result of the earthquake” he told the J.League website, roughly three weeks after the first tremors “so we are grateful to the people, the city and the prefecture for helping to find a place for us to train. We have to do our best to prepare. Our job is to play football and through that we want to uplift the people of Kumamoto and give them hope.”

From the initial earthquake, it took a month for the club to be in any position to play a league again. Their first game upon resumption of footballing activities was away at Seiichiro Maki’s old club, and it was not surprising that it turned out to be an emotional occasion for all involved. From a purely footballing point of view, it was probably to be expected that Roasso would come out all pumped up, but it was probably also inevitable that that initial wave of energy would be replaced by tiredness, after all they hadn’t played a competitive match in a month while opponents JEF were in full groove. A goalless first half was followed by a second half saw the hosts score twice through Yamato Machida, and condemned Roasso to defeat.

Post game, the interview duties unsurprisingly fell to Seiichiro Maki, and he was barely able to contain his emotions. He looked physically drained, but repeated the same message that he had been stating in the run up to the game: the result was important (it is football, after all), but just to be on the pitch, wearing the shirt with badge of Kumamoto on is a fantastic thing for the people affected by the earthquake to see. He vowed that Roasso will continue to play & provide hope for the people of the city & prefecture of Kumamoto.

Even Maki would have to admit though that, in football, goodwill can only get you so far. Now that Roasso had returned to league action, they needed to start getting results. A complication to this was that their stadium was still out of commission, being as it was still fulfilling the more important role of admin base for the reconstruction efforts and storage centre for supplies. Their first “home” game was played in Kashiwa Reysol’s Hitachidai stadium against Mito Hollyhock and the Japanese football public got behind the team, filling the stadium with de-facto Roasso fans – putting aside their club allegiances just for the afternoon. Again, Roasso looked a little off the pace and succumbed to another defeat, this time by a solitary goal. They were to lose the next two games as well – although they could be forgiven in purely footballing terms because the defeats came against promotion chasing sides Machida Zelvia (in a game played at Noevir Stadium, Kobe) and at Fagiano Okayama.

On June 8th, nearly two months after last playing a game in Kyushu, Roasso hosted struggling Zweigen Kanazawa at Sagan Tosu’s Best Amenity stadium. They certainly seemed to relish playing relatively close to their home as they produced a whirlwind first half performance that saw them completely overwhelm Kanazawa, and go into the half time break 5-0 up. In many ways, this was a cathartic performance from Kumamoto – the pent up pride, frustration, disappointment, and whatever other emotions the players felt were turned into a heady cocktail of footballing style & end product. The final score ended up being 5-2, and Roasso had announced that they were back in business.

Since that night, Kumamoto have drawn one & won two of their following three games, culminating in Sunday’s dramatic, never-say-die win at FC Gifu. They have a difficult slate of games coming up, given that they will be facing Kyoto, Cerezo Osaka & Shimizu S-Pulse within the next month, but they have the desire & the make-up to play against those supposedly superior sides.

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In Japan, we saw in 2011 that Vegalta Sendai fed off emotion after the great Tohoku earthquake and it almost propelled them to a J.League title. Will Roasso Kumamoto do the same? Most probably not, but the mere fact that we are already talking about the possibility of a play-off push merely two months after the ground literally gave way beneath their feet is of much, much more significance. The players and supporters now have a unique bond between them. When things go right, they celebrate. When they lose, they accept it and they offer support. It is a two way thing. Roasso supporters have seen that the players care for the community, and care about the people there. The players know that the supporters have got their back, and know that when the inevitable bad patch arrives – it is Kumamoto we’re talking about after all, not Barcelona or Bayern Munich – the connection that has been forged will see through.

And that is what everyone wants – to see Kumamoto as a whole to come through this disaster. That isn’t to say that this disaster should define what or who Roasso Kumamoto are, and that reasoning should also apply to general area of Kumamoto. Kumamoto is more than just Kumamon. It’s a beautiful place – hot springs, beaches, mountains and great people. The rest of the country would do well to keep those things in mind when thinking about Kumamoto.

Most of the time, football is just a game. But for the likes of Seiichiro Maki & Roasso Kumamoto it can be a lot more. It can help people, galvanize people, organize people, and give them hope. And that is a story that everyone can get behind.

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