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Japan to play soccer friendlies to "rally nation"


Schalke 04's Atsuto Uchida poses with a jersey after their German Bundesliga soccer match win against Eintracht Frankfurt in Gelsenkirchen March 12, 2011. The words read, "Dear friends in Japan, in the hope that many lives are saved, let us stand together!". REUTERS/Ina Fassbender
Schalke 04's Atsuto Uchida poses with a jersey after their German Bundesliga soccer match win against Eintracht Frankfurt in Gelsenkirchen March 12, 2011. The words read, "Dear friends in Japan, in the hope that many lives are saved, let us stand together!". REUTERS/Ina Fassbender

TOKYO (Reuters) - Japan plan to host two scheduled international soccer friendlies later this month despite the devastation caused by the biggest earthquake on record, which triggered a 10-meter tsunami that submerged the country's northeast coast.

The 8.9 magnitude quake struck on Friday and with officials estimating a death toll of more than 10,000, major sporting events in Japan were postponed over the weekend but the football association believes the friendlies would help to rally the nation.

On Sunday, Japan Football Association (JFA) general secretary Kozo Tashima confirmed the matches against Montenegro on March 25 at the Shizuoka Stadium, southwest of Tokyo, and New Zealand in the capital four days later would go ahead.

"It would mean something to stage these games, more than ever," the Kyodo news agency reported Tashima saying at the JFA headquarters in Tokyo.

"We will hold it in Shizuoka of course, and I think having the game in Tokyo will really mean something. The matches are still two weeks away and we need to send a message to the rest of the world.

"The images people are seeing on CNN and what not, the world probably doesn't have an accurate view of what Tokyo is like at the moment.

"We need to inform people that Tokyo is functional, that the city is okay and order is being restored in Tokyo again.

"The entire Japanese football community needs to help the country get back on its feet again," Tashima added. "Not just soccer, but I think the whole sports world in Japan needs to step up for the nation."

All 19 weekend soccer matches in Japan's top two divisions were canceled and J.League champions Nagoya Grampus and Emperor's Cup holders Kashima Antlers had their Asian Champions League matches scheduled for Tuesday and Wednesday postponed.

Kashima were hit hard by the disaster with the club's stadium and training facilities both badly damaged, Kyodo reported. Some 150 students and staff at the JFA academy near Fukushima were evacuated for fears of a radiation leak nearby.

National team coach Alberto Zaccheroni and his four assistants flew home to Italy on Saturday after their relatives grew concerned.

Sunday's Nagoya International women's marathon, a qualifying race for the World Athletics Championships in August, was called off, with organizers saying they would decide on a substitute race by Tuesday.

FIGURE SKATING

All of the weekend's Japanese Baseball games were scrapped as was a Japan LPGA women's golf event in Kochi, which had begun on Thursday. Next week's women's tournament in Kagoshima has also been canceled.

Figure skating officials said they were monitoring events in Japan to decide if the March 21-27 world championships should go ahead in Tokyo.

"Recent developments since Saturday, in particular the developments in the Fukushima nuclear plant, are very worrisome," the International Skating Union (ISU) said in a media release on Sunday, adding that it would release a further statement on Monday.

The Fukushima plant, some 240 km north of Tokyo, was damaged in the earthquake and authorities set up an exclusion zone around it.

Around the world, Japanese athletes spoke of their shock about the huge disaster in their homeland.

Golfer Ryo Ishikawa, who was second after the first round of the WGC-Cadillac Championship in Florida, struggled badly in his second round after hearing news of the disaster but rallied on Saturday to move into a tie for 16th.

"I'm pleased that I kept myself tough mentally on the third day," Ishikawa said.

"Since I'm not in Japan, I haven't been able to grasp the extent of the damage caused by the earthquake. I believe the only thing I can do is play well and encourage the people back home."

Takashi Saito, who pitches for the Milwaukee Brewers in Major League Baseball (MLB), grew up in the most badly affected area.

"I was raised in Sendai over 22 years. When I hear the names of places (in news reports), I start to imagine all the faces of my friends that I know from there. There are no words for this," he said.

New York Yankees minor league pitcher Kei Igawa left spring training in Florida to return home.

"Every time there is an aftershock, my family jumps into the car to get ready to run. They are spending the whole time feeling unnerved," the 31-year-old from Oarai said.

Japan international soccer player Yuto Nagatomo and his Inter Milan team mates wore black armbands in their Italian league match on Friday, as did tennis player Kei Nishikori in his first-round defeat at the Indian Wells event in California.

(Writing by Patrick Johnston in Singapore; Editing by John O'Brien and Clare Fallon)

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