“In the wee hours of the morning, sometime between Christmas and New Year’s Eve, in their basement apartment in Washington, D.C., we wrote ‘Take Me Home, Country Roads.’ It became my first Number One record.” Music and lyrics of John Denver, who crafted this sentence in his 1994 autobiography, “Take Me Home.”
“Take me home, country roads” is one of the most iconic songs in the American discography, becoming almost immediately an anthem for the state of West Virginia, despite singer and songwriter John Denver found the inspiration initially from another state. The song came out in April 1971, after it was written a few months before. Little did he know Denver of how far this tune would have made its journey.
Exactly forty years later, those same notes are resounding throughout a venue. That arena is the Todoroki Stadium, although the song normally is sung within the Yurtec Stadium, with the fans breathing out all their emotion before and after the match. In a way, West Virginia and Miyagi Prefecture look closer when that melody is blasting throughout the yellow stadium in Sendai.
There’s a day when people from a special city thought that no, they couldn’t find their way back to their roads. Their homes. Their lives. Those same morning hours left a sense of impotence, inevitability.
That day was March 11, 2011.
How the earthquake changed it all
To tell this story, we have asked to Yosuke (@maimaidenden on Twitter) how Vegalta were considered back then: “We have been improving our team strength under the guidance of Teguramori, who was hired in 2008. However, we lost to Jubilo Iwata in play-out: it was really painful at that time, we cried after the match. But at the same time, I hoped to be promoted on next season. So I was very happy when we got promoted in ‘09 and I decided to do my best in J1”.
Vegalta’s history mostly happened outside of the first division, since they enjoyed just three seasons in the top-flight. Despite this lack of experience Sendai kept his place in J1 at the end of 2010, coming fourteenth and hoping for a better future in the year ahead.
Yosuke again: “In 2011, the young players who contributed to the promotion developed, while veteran players such as Cho Byung-kuk and Marquinhos joined. There was a lot of excitement. I was hoping that I could get into the upper ranks if I had a good time. I was excited to get t0 March 11th, because we would have faced defending champions Nagoya Grampus the day after”.
Unfortunately, that game will never take place on that day. The clock is marking 14:46 in the Japanese time of March 11th, when the earth starts shaking. An earthquake of magnitude 9.0 changes the life of many people forever: the Tōhoku earthquake has the been the strongest ever measured in Japan, but most of all the successive tsunami – with waves high as much as 40,5 meters – sweeps away places, memories, whole lives.
One of the players from Vegalta Sendai in that season, goalkeeper Takuto Hayashi, can still remember those moments.
“I was in the club house in Sendai. I remember how I thought that surviving to that earthquake was the luckiest I could get. I didn’t know what to say, especially when someone comes to you and say that friends are buried under the rubbles. I visited Ishinomaki a few days after… despite all the pain, someone wrote: “Players always give us courage”. The meaning of playing football has then changed for me.”
Yosuke felt helpless: “Immediately after the earthquake and the tsunami, football got out of my mind. I was thinking about starting line-ups, tactical predictions, transfer rumors like… every day. But back then electricity and gas were cut off and I couldn’t contact my friends and relatives. We were desperate to “live” among the people who fled. I remember thinking how I couldn’t see football from that day on.”
The rebirth (and something more)
Due to the earthquake, it takes some time to even talk about a return of football on the pitch. The right chance comes along on April 23rd, when Vegalta Sendai are back as the other J. League clubs, this time to play away from home. Kawasaki Frontale are the opponents, but the attention of both supporters and members of the club isn’t just limited to the field.
Hayashi can still remember the feelings from that day: “I was worried because of the aftershocks and for my family, but I felt a commitment to work even harder, since there were people supporting us, giving us the opportunity to keep playing football. I wanted to play for them and that game… I’ll never live through another win like that one. That game should have never happened; I kinda hope there won’t be another game like that one. Many supported us on the spot and by watching the match on TV. It was moving”.
In the end, the game is a first chance to smile for Sendai in a few weeks: one goal behind, the guests are able to turn it around and winning 2-1. The historic goals from that day were scored by Yoshiaki Ota and Jiro Kamata: one has retired in 2019, while the central defender is currently featuring for SC Sagamihara in J2.
Yosuke felt many emotions on that day: “The game against Kawasaki is the most memorable I’ve ever been at. After the match, I felt so emotional, because I thought that we had regained our daily life with football. We were also grateful to all Frontale fans, who warmly welcomed us. Since then, friendship has sprung up between Sendai and Kawasaki supporters”.
Recently, Vegalta and Frontale played each other close to this anniversary. A video on YouTube’s channel of Vegalta explained how the two clubs intertwined that day.
The unexpected growth
If 2011 was surprising enough (Vegalta will close fourth on the table, their best position ever), 2012 will be even bigger than the year before. An unusual title-race develops between Sanfrecce Hiroshima and Sendai, with the former side winning it all… but the second place obtained by Vegalta means another improvement in their best achievement and the participation to the 2013 AFC Champions League.
“2012 was magical on the pitch for us, but Teguramori’s tactics transformed us in a club confident of its game. Furthermore, this wave of results was underlined by the consciousness that these excellent performances could have been “the star of hope in the disaster area,” and we were able to achieve the biggest feat in club’s history. I have the impression that both players and supporters have done their best through that season. There was something like an extra-push from our beloved ones.”
That ACL campaign won’t memorable, just like the 2013 season under Makoto Teguramori, who began to realize it was time to say goodbye. After a thirteenth place on the table, the beloved head coach opted to leave, just before returning in 2021 after eight years of distance from his dear Sendai.
After a decade like this, Vegalta Sendai can count on many positive years, the retained status in J1 and even an Emperor’s Cup final, lost in 2018. There’s a lot to be proud for and it’s incredible how all of this has been achieved despite and after such a tragedy. That day changed the life of the fans, but the club’s history as well.
Now in Hiroshima, Hayashi has never forgotten his favorite memory from those times: “That match between Kawasaki and Vegalta never left my mind. You felt like the pain of those who lost their loved ones couldn’t be healed, but I got courage seeing those who have crawled out of trouble. I think about that day a lot”.
It’s also incredible how Vegalta were able to survive all this time in J1 after having found another reliable coach like Susumu Watanabe, who kept the squad in the top-flight and probably achieved even more than expected. 2020 hasn’t been easy and 2021 started with the wrong foot, but there’s no doubt that these feats will stay in Vegalta’s history forever.
This decade left its mark on the fans as well: “As you say, we’ve been in Asia Champions League since then and have been in J1 for over a DECADE. This is an unbelievable result for a club like ours, which is pretty small – says Yosuke -. No one would have probably believed it if someone told us ten years ago.”
Take me home, country roads
From the writer’s point of view, there’s more than simple affection for this team. 2011 was the first full season I’ve ever followed in J. League and, of course, this event represented a huge key-point of that year. At the same, one dear person of mine went to Japan and ended up living in Sendai. In the end, I felt I couldn’t ignore this anniversary for all that meant to Sendai, but also for everything that means to me.
Furthermore, a recent quake of magnitude 7.3 was eerily compared to the one from 2011. It was indeed the strongest they’ve felt since that day, but we should underline what Sendai and Vegalta have been able to build after such a disaster. Yosuke explains it better: “Surely we have been imprinted with the catastrophe for now. It’s not only the fact that it has caused many casualties, but also the shock that everyday life is no longer the norm.
We continue to have this attitude of “appreciating the environment in which enjoy watching and playing football.” We’re disappointed when we lost, but that doesn’t mean the fact “we’re out of the football”. I’m grateful to our daily life connected to football and never give up until the end of the match, like we got football back in our daily lives for 10 years ago… I think this attitude is one of the reasons why we love football forever and Vegalta Sendai can continue to fight on the top stage in Japan.”
After a decade, Hayashi has learned his lesson: “I always wanted to do my best, working hard. After coming to Hiroshima, heavy rain disaster happened here. Every time I hear about damages, I want to cooperate in rebuilding certain realities when in trouble. I think of what I can do as a football player. Not just football, but every sport has the power to encourage people. I must do my best every time: I feel happy and satisfied to do so.”
To quote the songwriter we were talking about at the beginning of this piece:
“I hear her voice in the mornin’ hour, she calls me
The radio reminds me of my home far away
Drivin’ down the road, I get a feelin’
That I should’ve been home yesterday, yesterday”
We want to deeply thank Yosuke and Takuto Hayashi for their precious time. We wanna also thank the press office of Sanfrecce Hiroshima for providing us the opportunity of talking with one of the protagonists from that time.