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Football team rise above disaster to have dream season

By James Montague, CNN
updated 12:04 AM EDT, Mon March 12, 2012
Vegalta Sendai's fans hold up a banner reading
Vegalta Sendai's fans hold up a banner reading "Bond" to show the close support they have for their team
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Japanese football team Vegalta Sendai had best ever season last year
  • Finished fourth in Japan's J-League
  • Team's stadium was ruined by last year's earthquake
  • Team inspired to go on two 11 match unbeaten runs

(CNN) -- In sport, finishing fourth rarely provokes scenes of rapture, nor does it excite the keyboards of headline writers.

But for Vegalta Sendai who finished in that position in last season's J-League -- Japan's top soccer competition - fourth place was truly a miracle.

The Japanese soccer club has rarely tasted glory in its short history. Despite having a small but vociferous fan base, the team is better know as perennial nearly-men; forever stuck in Japan's second division as promotion to the big league eluded them season after season.

Yet in March last year Vegalta Sendai was looking forward with optimism to a rare season in Japan's top flight. On March 11 those dreams turned to rubble.

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When a 9.0 magnitude earthquake and devastating tsunami hit Japan's Tohoku region, the city of Sendai was one of the hardest hit. Tens of thousands of people from the area were killed or remain unaccounted for.

Every aspect of life was affected and the city's beloved soccer club -- majority owned by the city and the Miyagi prefecture - was no different.

The team's stadium was declared to be "in ruins" by J-League chairman Kazumi Ohigashi, its training ground destroyed.

Vegalta's foreign players, so traumatized by what they saw, canceled their contracts and returned home. The players that remained helped in the clean up operation and ran soccer camps for the orphans. The league was suspended.

"Immediately after the earthquake and tsunami we, as a team, wondered if we should, and could, continue to play soccer," said the team's coach, Makoto Teguramori.

But it was controversially decided that the J-League would continue. The club was homeless and its fans traumatized but Teguramori believed that Vegalta Sendai could "be the symbol of hope for the entire Tohoku region and to lead and encourage the reconstruction efforts with our strong performance."

Which is exactly what happened. Despite only ever being a minor footnote in Japan's soccer history, Vegalta Sendai went on an incredible 11 game unbeaten run and sat at the top of the league table. Before their first match of the restarted season against Kawasaki Frontale the fans displayed a banner that read: "Thank you for all [our] friends. We do not lose until we regain a hometown."

By the time the team did eventually lose for the first time, Vegalta Sendai had been good to their word. Not only did they beat Kawasaki Frontale 2-1 in dramatic fashion that day, the stadium was quickly rebuilt and the team returned for the rest of the season.

"Everyone who follows the J league was shocked by Sendai's performance. I met so many people who were encouraged by Vegalta. At the same time, they, fans and players, know that to keep on keeping on is important," explained Koji Takao, a writer for Japan's leading Weekly Soccer magazine.

"The people in Sendai started a rush constructing job on the stadium. Although there was some serious damage after March 11 they could host a game against Urawa on April 29. So the speed of reconstruction of the stadium was very fast."

Not everyone could watch Vegalta's matches though.

"People in Tohoku still couldn't watch that game as there was no electricity," he added

After losing for the first time in June many in Japan assumed that Vegalta would then plummet like a stone. But after a brief drop in form the team went on another 11 game unbeaten run that only ended last November.

"To have one good run is difficult to do under the circumstances," said Takao. "To have another good run and bounce back to the top table of the J-league made people in Sendai and Tohoku proud."

In the end, Vegalta Sendai's fairytale dream of winning their first ever J-League championship was a bridge too far. But their fourth placed finish represented their best ever season.

The 2012 J-League season began last Saturday, the day before the anniversary of the earthquake and tsunami. Vegalta Sendai started as they ended last season with a 1-0 win against Kashima Antlers.

But like the Japanese women's national team, who famously won the World Cup last June by beating the U.S. in the final, Vegalta Sendai's performances on the pitch resonated far outside soccer.

"What Vegalta and Nadeshiko Japan [Japan's women's national soccer team] show is how not to give up," said Takao.

"That's why Japanese people cheered for the team. But that cheer was probably not only for the team. It was also for ourselves and the people who suffered."

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