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In aftermath of the tsunami, Onagawa's local team provides aid

When a tsunami rips apart a country, sport loses all relevance. But when it comes to reconstruction, it can be crucial.

Koichi Ohmi is not a man given to hyperbole. As a successful businessman and a respected newspaper publisher, he has experienced enough of life not to be shaken easily. But nothing could prepare him for the Japanese tsunami.

"I was stunned," he said. "I couldn't believe the force of it. The waves were so high, they flooded the ground floor of the hospital, located 20 meters up on the hillside. It destroyed not only the coastal plain area, but also valleys deep inland, and you only need to look at the photographs to realize it went beyond anything imaginable."

On the afternoon of Friday, March 11, deep beneath the Pacific Ocean, the earth lurched violently, sending a wall of water hurtling toward Japan's mainland. Funneled by the hills on either side, by the time it reached the harbor town of Onagawa, it was 25 meters high. With devastating force, it tore inland, hurling cars around like toys, pulling buildings to the ground and drowning men, women and children in their hundreds. When the wave subsided and the slow, arduous recovery began, Ohmi's local soccer club was at the heart of the rebuilding project. But now, crippled by the disaster, it faces closure.

Cobaltore Onagawa was formed in 2006 by Ohmi as a response to the decline of his hometown. He created the club, not to suck up television revenue, or to boost his own ego, but to give the town's young population a reason to be proud of their home, and a reason to stay when the bright lights of Tokyo beckoned. In an era when soccer clubs routinely stretch away from their origins, seeking out "branding opportunities" or "new revenue streams," this was a team built specifically for the community. They were successful too. Three straight promotions took Cobaltore into the regional leagues. Enthusiastic training sessions for both sexes at all age levels galvanized local interest. Until March 11, Cobaltore Onagawa was thriving. And then the tsunami hit.

More than 1,300 Onagawa citizens, almost 15 percent of the town's population, were killed by the wave. With mobile phone networks down, survivors turned to whatever working infrastructure they could for information. The Cobaltore messageboard, once a place for fixture lists and postmatch debate, became a primary source of news and a way for people to let their loved ones know they were safe. It also became a place for people to tell their stories. Stories like the tale of Mitsuru Sato who saved a group of Chinese students, bravely leading them to safety before turning back into the rising waters for his wife and daughter. He was never seen again. His wife and daughter were found alive and unharmed.

Miraculously, none of the Cobaltore players were killed and, instead of fleeing to the safety of undamaged towns and cities, they insisted on staying to aid the rescue efforts. Employees of the local fish processing plant, they slept in the factory and, even now, two months on from the disaster, they continue to distribute food and water, while attempting to the clear the wreckage that litters their town.

"The players were in shock," said Ohmi. "They took shelter in the evacuation centers, but they soon turned their thoughts to the townspeople and got busy securing kamaboko fish cake, food and drinking water from sponsor companies and distributing them to the people as a way of lifting spirits.

"I felt completely hopeless after the tsunami struck. I was worried sick about the team and also my family, relatives and friends. However, I asked myself what was the purpose behind establishing the team and our efforts so far, and I realized it was all for the townspeople and the local community. I decided to accept the disaster as the fate that has been dealt. I made up my mind to recover once again."

Cobaltore's stadium, still intact on high ground, is now serving as a base for Japanese self-defense forces, deployed to aid the rebuilding. All fixtures have been canceled, all its supplies have been destroyed and the club faces financial ruin.

"We currently do not have enough money, supplies and people to run a football team. Almost everything from the players' dormitory to equipment and gear were washed away by the tsunami. Moreover, there is no income coming in from match admission fees. The economic situation is desperate."

But there is still hope. An international appeal, spearheaded by Englishman Michael Innes is attempting to raise enough money to save the club, enabling it to return to self-sufficiency.

"Cobaltore Onagawa is important because it is more than simply a symbol of a community," said Innes. "It's something for local people to get excited about, sure, but make no mistake about it: the children' training sessions that the club is already running are a first step to getting those youngsters engaged in their town, for the purposes of its long-term survival.

"Onagawa is in ruins and the football club gives them a reason to stay while the rebuilding takes place, over what will be many years. The football club could be the thing which gives Onagawa the future it deserves, and we think the players deserve support for what they're doing to make that happen."

Through events and fundraising arranged at http://onagawasupporters.com/, Innes endeavors to tell the story of Cobaltore and to encourage direct donations to the appeal.

The structural rebuilding of Onagawa has already begun, but the Cobaltore players are already turning the hand to the spiritual recovery as well.

"The players restarted football practice for the local children at a neighboring soccer school soon after the disaster," said Ohmi. "We hope that the sight of children enjoying soccer will help heal the mental trauma of the parents too. In that sense, I think that the townspeople have a desire to move forward together with the football club. This has been the achievement of our efforts so far.

"I think the disaster recovery plan will proceed smoothly. After all, Japan has recovered from World War II and numerous other tribulations in the past. We just want to build a town filled with hope where people can once again enjoy football."

Iain Macintosh is the UK Football Correspondent for The New Paper in Singapore and the author of Football Fables. You can also follow him on Twitter (@iainmacintosh).

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