Soccer match celebrates renewal in disaster-stricken town Soccer match celebrates renewal in disaster-stricken town

Soccer match celebrates renewal in disaster-stricken town

    NHK World
    A new stadium in Onagawa town, Miyagi Prefecture, is the latest symbol of recovery in an area devastated by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. Last month, international women's soccer stars flew in to put on a show.

    Professionals take on university team

    A dozen Japanese players from overseas leagues flew home to make up the "Protagonista" team. They adopted a Spanish name that evokes individual strength.

    But they lost 1-5 to Waseda, Japan's top university team.

    The event was the brainchild of professional soccer player Chiba Minori, who has spent six seasons in several Spanish teams including C.D. FemarguĂ­n SPAR Gran Canaria. Her family lives in Iwate Prefecture, which was badly hit in 2011.

    Chiba Minori put together a team of professional Japanese players who play in overseas leagues. She called it "Protagonista."

    She organized a similar event last year and the response was so positive that she decided to do it again.

    "I really feel that our energy on the field helps everyone that's come to watch," says Chiba. "I hope we give courage to those who are struggling."

    Chiba shaved the name of the town into her hair.

    Onagawa town struggles to bounce back

    Onagawa town was hit by tsunamis after the Great East Japan Earthquake. Most of the town was destroyed, and more than 500 people were killed. Many residents lost their homes and were forced to flee to other areas.

    Most of Onagawa was destroyed in the 2011 disaster.

    The town used to be home to 10,000 people and boasted a famous fishing industry. Today, the population is only about 60 percent of what it was.

    Attracting visitors

    Local officials are looking to tourism to boost the economy, and they hope the new 600-seat Onagawa Stadium will help.

    Onagawa Stadium was officially opened right before the June 19 match.

    A showcase for homegrown talent

    In addition to boosting local spirits, the match also served to showcase Japanese talent, which hasn't always had the opportunity to shine at home.

    Togawa Yuki travelled from Spain to take part. Her dream is to play in the World Cup and the Olympics.

    Togawa Yuki has played professionally in Spain for three years.

    Togawa went to Spain aged 18. She has been playing for Real Oviedo Femenino and Real Racing Club de Santander for the last three years, but has not had much opportunity to show off her ability back home.

    Others share her concern that distance is an obstacle to getting noticed in Japan. At the same time, options in Japan are limited because the environment for female soccer players is relatively poor compared to their male counterparts.

    It was only last year that a professional women's league was established in Japan. Before that, domestic players had to fit soccer around their work schedules.

    Setting an example

    "I'm happy playing soccer in front of Japanese spectators," said Togawa Yuki after the game.

    Togawa says she wants to encourage participation in the sport she loves: "It would make me happy if our match encouraged some children to get interested in soccer. I want them to see someone successful overseas and feel they can do it, too."

    Her message seemed to resonate with some girls in the crowd. "I thought the players were cool," said one. Another said the skills on display were "amazing."

    An ongoing commitment

    The organizers are hoping to establish a tradition. "In the future, I would like to hold this tournament every year in Onagawa," says match committee executive chairperson Terada Mihoko.

    Match committee executive chairperson Terada Mihoko says the event "is a good platform to commemorate the disaster, as well as showcase what dreams can achieve."

    "I hope to make this tournament a bridge between Japan and the world in women's soccer," says Terada. "I hope that seeing the female players live their dreams will encourage many others."

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