Friday, 22 April 2011

Kashiwa Preview

So apparently there's a football match on Saturday; more than one, by all accounts. Well, that's really good news and I'm looking forward to it. But I ought to let you know what I've been doing over the last three and a half weeks, in particular. To do that we have to jump back to the end of February, when Squirrels fan and non-league blogger Michael Hudson asked me to write a piece about Japanese football for a website he'd set up. The purpose of the site was to promote Michael's own Northern League Day event, which aimed to encourage football fans in the north-east of England to attend local non-league matches on one particular weekend in April as a means of celebrating the grassroots game.

I began writing an article about Cobaltore Onagawa, a non-league team based in the north-east of Japan that had been formed in 2006 with the specific intention of encouraging young kids in the small provincial town of Onagawa to stay in their home community and not move to the big cities. My hope was that this might be an interesting and unusual topic for Michael and his readers, containing some parallels with the circumstances surrounding Northern League Day and also making a point about the relationship between a football club and its community. That was the idea, anyway.

I was half way through the article when on 11 March the tsunami struck. Onagawa, on the eastern tip of Miyagi prefecture, was just about the closest town to the earthquake's epicentre and as such it experienced catastrophic levels of devastation. The whole of the main part of Onagawa was destroyed by a wave that reached twenty metres in height and toppled over reinforced concrete buildings. Visiting Onagawa in mid-April, tsunami expert Harry Yeh of Oregon State University - a person who has visited and studied tsunami-affected areas from Nicaragua to the Indian Ocean over the course of nearly twenty years - described himself as “totally, totally stunned” at the level of destruction in the town and its surrounding area. Most recent estimates suggest that more than 1300 of Onagawa's 10,000 population are dead or missing.

The days following 11 March were confused and confusing, but even so it was clear that Onagawa, like other communities along that stretch of coast like Kesennuma and Ishinomaki, had suffered appalling damage. It was also apparent that the football club were playing a significant part in the relief effort. There was serious concern as to the whereabouts of Cobaltore's player-coach Reiji Nakajima but, like all the other members of the first team squad, he was found unharmed. Nakajima, who in 2002 played a single J2 match for Ventforet Kofu, joined his team-mates in working alongside the police and military with the immediate tasks of clearing debris and distributing food and drink to the evacuation centres on higher ground.

Meanwhile I was getting on with the real hard work of sitting at the laptop, sipping coffee and looking out of the window, wondering how the hell I was going to finish my article now that this had happened. What made it easier for me was the realisation that the selfless actions of the Cobaltore players - most of whom, like Nakajima, come from elsewhere in Japan and could have been forgiven for heading back home at the earliest possible moment - were entirely in keeping with the notion of a club so closely bound together with its community. Cobaltore was founded in order to hold the town of Onagawa together. Now, its purpose had shifted to helping Onagawa to begin again, after the tsunami had done its best to wipe the slate clean. I emailed the finished article to Michael and he put it on the Northern League Day site.

A couple of days later, someone named Fightswithivy posted a Comment about the article. "There has GOT to be something we can do to support this town," it read. Well, yes. The calamitous events of 11 March coupled with the response of the Cobaltore players to those events led me to the same conclusion. I wanted to help Onagawa and its football club. Fightswithivy and I quickly exchanged emails to introduce ourselves to each other (she was English but had spent some years living in Japan, had visited Onagawa, loved it and had a close friend whose family come from the town) and share ideas, and Onagawa Supporters was born. Armed with the basic tools of the modern-day campaign group - a Wordpress website, a Twitter account, a Facebook page and an email address - we started trying to raise money and tell anyone who would listen about Onagawa and the football club that had been formed to save a town, but was now trying to beat the tsunami.

In fact, the tsunami has only increased the need for Cobaltore, as the temptation for youngsters to depart Onagawa for the bigger cities has inevitably become that much greater with so much of their community in ruins. While the club is already organising training sessions in the neighbouring city for youngsters who are holed up in evacuation centres that have no electricity, the situation now is that Cobaltore will likely fold without outside help. The first team has had to withdraw from the Tohoku League this year and hence Cobaltore have no source of income from ticket sales - or from merchandise, almost all of which was lost when the club's office in the middle of Onagawa was destroyed.

Put simply, Onagawa Supporters want to raise funds that will enable Cobaltore Onagawa to stand on its own two feet again and thereby give the town a fighting chance of survival as a community. So what have we accomplished since the end of March? Well, here's a few things:

1. we're in regular, frequent contact with Onagawa. This means that we have reliable on-the-ground information coming direct from the community that we're trying to help.

2. we're in consultation with management at Cobaltore, developing plans as regards how best to use the funds we raise. For example, it may be that we provide more ongoing support for the sorts of youth and junior team events touched on above. We hope this will not only help see the kids through these dark times but also constitute a step towards Onagawa’s long-term survival.

3. we've set up the Onagawa Supporters.com website to accept donations via Paypal, credit card and bank transfer, if you want to contribute to Cobaltore and the future of Onagawa. It probably goes without saying that we especially need football fans to donate; thank you to the many people from all over the world who very kindly have already done so.

4. we're working on fundraising and sponsorship ideas, and are following up on suggestions. For example, if it's possible to do so we'll sell Cobaltore replica shirts. We're also considering the idea of an honorary club membership scheme.

5. we're working on press releases and ways of drawing wider attention to the situation in Onagawa and at Cobaltore. For example, we think that football clubs and fans in the UK and around the world will be interested in and want to support what Cobaltore are doing and as such we're working to identify contacts who can help us to make the appropriate connections.

6. we've been tweeted about by British comedian and actor Stephen Fry and football writer Henry Winter, together with everyone's favourite tearful North Korean, Chong Tese (it could be that this is the only circumstance under which those three names will ever be written in the same sentence). We've received coverage from independent football websites the72.com and When Saturday Comes.

7. for the first and no doubt only time in my life, I've done interviews with the Wall Street Journal's Tokyo bureau - the English version is here and the Japanese is here - with the Daily Yomiuri and Weekly Soccer Magazine. The WSM article, by Sean Carroll, is in this coming Tuesday's issue (26 April).

So I've been pretty busy and a side-effect of that is that the kind of topic that's normally discussed here on GGOA - Jun Suzuki's tactics, Chikara Fujimoto's attitude, Naoki Ishihara's moustache - has slipped down the priority list. As I said at the start of this piece, I'm pleased that J-League football is starting again and of course I hope that Omiya can win the Noda Line derby against Kashiwa Reysol on Saturday. But can I get excited yet about whether Norio Suzuki gets a place in the team, or exactly how Lee Chun Soo is deployed to greatest effect? I must admit that I can't. It'll come back, I'm sure. But it'll take time.

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