On the 15th of April, over 6,500 spectators turned up to watch a women’s football match in the north east city Sendai, Japan. This attendance figure would not be so surprising considering the unprecedented popularity and interests to the women’s game in Japan after their national team winning the Women’s World Cup last summer. However this match was not an international friendly or even top-flight league match that features star-studded teams like INAC Kobe. This was a SECOND devision league (aka. Challenge League) match between newly formed team (Vegalta Sendai Ladies) and a high school team (Tokiwagi Gakuen). This is truly astonishing.
This was a Sendai derby match, but this was not the only reason this match got so much attentions (the local TV channel broadcasted the match live). There was a back-story to this event.
It’s been mere three months since Vegalta Sendai Ladies was formed. Most of the players were former players of TEPCO Mareeze, the former Nadeshiko League (women’s top division league in Japan) club that is now technically dissolved. Mareeze was based in Fukushima and sponsored by the company that runs the nuclear power plant that was hit by the earthquake and tsunami last year. After the disaster the team suspended its activity. All the Mareeze players were employees of that company. A few of them left and moved to another club, but most of the players had not played for almost a year. J-League (Japan’s men’s top league) club Vegalta Sendai offered to form a women’s team with these players, and it was accepted by the JFA and TEPCO Mareeze last November. Sendai is also in the north east of Japan as Fukushima that was hit by the disaster last march. There were offers from other J-League clubs, but because of the proximity of these two, Sendai was considered to be the best option. Now 18 former Mareeze players found new club to play football again (and new day jobs in new place as they are not professional).
This match was their first home game. The opponent Tokiwagi Gakuen is a high school team but this is not a normal high school team. This school has produced many Nadeshiko League players and also national team players such as Aya Sameshima (Montpellier, France), Saki Kumagai (FFC FrankFurt, Germany), and Asuna Tanaka (INAC Kobe). Also many players are selected for the youth category U20, U17. Coincidentally Sameshima was also a former Mareeze player until it stopped its activity.
The atmosphere in the stadium looked absolutely fantastic with the crowd. The match ended 1-1 draw. After the match, Vegalta Sendai players looked very emotional and some tears were seen when they were going around the pitch to thank the supporters.
The current boom of women’s game in Japan is based on the national team’s success, and it did raise the profile of women’s game. Most of people come to the league games because they want to see these national team players. So that reflects the attendance figures in the league matches. The more the team has national team players, the bigger the attendance is. However Sendai is a unique team that has a strong tie to the community. Most of people that day in the stadium came to support the team rather than to see the national team players. I truly hope they are promoted to the top division next season. Good luck to Vegalta Sendai Ladies and their supporters. The Vegalta Sendai supporter’s banner read “Make history with us in Sendai”. Their journey has just begun.
© Hiroshi Tabata / WomensSoccerUnited.com