Norio Sasaki took the reins of Japan in 2007, taking them through a solid period of incremental growth, before enjoying a remarkable 2011. Japan previously had just one FIFA Women’s World Cup™ quarter-final appearance to their name, but all that changed at Germany 2011.
Sasaki guided his unheralded side past the likes of host nation Germany, Sweden and then a stunning victory against world No1 USA to claim Asia’s first senior world crown. The Nadeshiko won the world title in style playing a modern and dynamic possession game, and to prove it was no fluke, Sasaki then led his team to first place in Asia’s qualifying competition for London 2012.
Sasaki enjoyed a relatively modest career, playing most notably for NTT Kanto before retiring at 33 and turning his hand to coaching. He served a lengthy apprenticeship in coaching, enjoying a seven-year tenure as assistant coach at NTT Kanto in the second-tier Japan Football League. He finally took the reins in 1996 leading the club through a period of significant change as they became the Saitama-based Omiya Ardija. After two years, Sasaki ended his tenure as senior coach and went on to fulfil numerous roles within the club, including youth team coach.
The real start, however, came in 2006 with his appointment to the Japan Under-20 national team and as assistant coach to the senior team. Sasaki also was given the role of U-15 and U-16 national team coach. In 2007, having obviously impressed in his various national team roles, Sasaki was appointed to the Japan senior team, succeeding Koji Ohasi.
Sasaki astutely set about building the team with a long-term plan for success in mind. A third place finish at the 2008 AFC Women’s Asian Cup in Vietnam gave little sign of the success that was to follow. However, the portents were there for the world to see little more than a year into the role as the Nadeshiko scaled new heights with a fourth place finish at the 2008 Women’s Olympic Football Tournament in Beijing. Eventual gold medallists USA were forced to work overtime before seeing off the Japanese in the semi-final, but the short-passing high-tempo style of play that would take them to success at Germany 2011, was already in evidence.
All the while Sasaki maintained his tenure with the national youth team leading them to the both the 2008 and 2010 FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cups, and, in the process, creating a seamless pathway for players stepping up to the senior team. Names such as Mana Iwabuchi successfully made the transition to top level international football.
Japan impressed at the 2010 AFC Women’s Asian Cup and seemed en route to the crown only to unluckily lose to Australia in the semi-final despite dominating the contest. The Asian title remains the only title yet to be secured by the Nadeshiko. 2010 did, however, see Japan secure gold at the Asian Games in Guangzhou.
Despite the set-back, winning form became a constant and Japan quietly moved into a top five position in the FIFA/Coca-Cola Women’s World Ranking and the rest, as they say is history.