The fans that lost a hometown but found a home.
On the eve of their return to the top flight of Japanese football, the fans of Vegalta Sendai knew that the 2011 season would be all about survival. But on the morning of their first game, the word survival took on a distinctly different meaning, as a massive undersea earthquake sent a 40 metre high tsunami toward their coastal city.
It left a trail of destruction up to 10km inland, leaving nearly 20,000 dead or missing.
Vegalta are the punk club. Renegades. Upstarts. With a hard edge far removed from the naïve enthusiasm of the 2002 World Cup. Tired of being looked down on by their illustrious big-city counterparts, their fiercely protective local pride had manifested itself as an arrogant joie de vivre.
A swirling, seething sea of yellow and blue, they bringing a pantomime brand of chaos to the stadiums of Japan, that crowd-surfs to a soundtrack of The Ramones, Kiss and The Clash. Sandinista-style banners drip from every rafter and megaphone wielding ‘fan leaders’, strut the concrete ramparts of their compact, English-styled stadium.
Sendai itself seemed to be the perfect opposite of its supporters. Politely old-fashioned and skirted along one side with a picturesque coastline of quaint fishing communities, it went about its own business far removed from any global guidebook.
The antics of the fans had left the city perpetually puzzled as to how to regard this animal in its midst. But in a dramatic reminder of the place of a club in the community, it was to Vegalta that many made their way in the wake of the earthquake.
The fans and the club had immediately mobilised and the damaged stadium became a distribution point for aid and comfort, while the players had gone out into the community to bring support and solace.
But only one month after the events of March 11th, Vegalta Sendai would find themselves thrust unwillingly into the national spotlight in the first game of the hastily re-arranged season – a televised clash at Kawasaki Frontale.
Few would have minded if the fans had forgone the 500 mile round trip, but against every expectation, 3,500 of their yellow and blue legion had battled their way across Japan. With faces turned to the heavens and with their eyes closed tightly against the pouring rain, they sang a mesmerising version of their ironic club anthem, ‘Take Me Home, Country Road’.
On that grey spring afternoon, Japan stood united. And with supreme timing and panache, the Vegalta Core Supporters unveiled a huge defiant banner that would brook no argument. It simply read ‘For our friends, we do not lose again until we rebuild our hometown’.
Amazingly and with the eloquence of a boys-own picture-book story, Sendai scored the winning goal with virtually the last kick of the game. It would be the first win in a remarkable season that would bring them to the attention of the watching world.
Six years later and there is a pride in the city of the unorthodox renegade at its heart. The fundraising efforts of the fans to help young people come to terms with trauma through football shows a growing maturity to their local pride – And their voices have also raised awareness of the painfully slow recovery process.
But under it all, they are what they are… A group of friends who come together every Saturday to drink a few beers and watch football. That, to them is their true recovery.