Japan FA scoops Fair Play Award
© AFP

It has been a monumental year for Japanese football. AFC Asian Cup success, representation in four of FIFA’s five tournaments, the hosting of the FIFA Club World Cup last month, and the calendar year crowned by ground-breaking victory at the FIFA Women’s World Cup™ in Germany.

The list of accomplishments are quite simply outstanding, made all the more timely with 2011 being the 90th anniversary year of the Japan Football Association.

Most remarkable was that the feats were achieved against the backdrop of an unimaginable natural disaster. On 11 March Japan suffered a devastating earthquake and tsunami that wreaked an overwhelming toll.

The loss of life and damage to property was barely conceivable, however the nation was able to find some level of solace through football.

The results were exceptional but so too was the dignity and equanimity showed by the nation’s various international teams. Japan’s representatives displayed significant mental fortitude following the disaster to achieve success against a harrowing and all-consuming backdrop. 

The hearts and minds of football fans all over the world were duly captured by the mental strength and courage displayed by Japan.

I hope our football has given a chance for future players and children to dream.
Japan's FIFA Women's World Cup-winning captain Homare Sawa

Never was that better displayed than in Germany during June and July as Japan achieved the unthinkable by overcoming women’s football heavyweights Germany, Sweden and USA en route to a stunning maiden FIFA Women’s World Cup crown.

The Nadeshiko showed remarkable resilience to end the eight-year reign of host nation Germany, before twice coming from behind to edge world No1 USA on penalties in a memorable finale.

Japan thus became the first male or female world champions at senior level, and in doing so, received widespread plaudits from media and opponents alike, as well as becoming firm fan favourites.

The Nadeshiko exhibited a banner thanking football fans for their support during their time in Germany. The banner previously displayed proudly by the Japan team in Mexico at the FIFA U-17 World Cup.

It was, as Nadeshiko captain and star midfielder Homare Sawa said during Germany 2011, a chance to provide the ailing nation with support. “I hope we can give strength and encouragement to the Japanese people back home,” said the tournament's adidas Golden Ball and Golden Boot winner. “I hope our football has given a chance for future players and children to dream.”

The victory proved to be a massive boost with the Nadeshiko lifted to an unprecedented high of three in the world. Unmatched interest in the domestic league also ensued while Japan maintained their momentum with a stylish qualification for the Olympic Women’s Football Tournament London 2012.

The youth teams matched that success qualifying for both of their respective FIFA World Cups as Japan’s women’s representatives concluded the year with just one defeat in 21 competition matches.

It was not just the women who flew the flag with the Japan U-17 and Beach teams participating with distinction at the respective FIFA tournaments held in Mexico and Italy, following the March disaster.

2011 began with outstanding success for Japan on the field with the senior team crowned champions of Asia when Samurai Blue lifted a record fourth AFC Asian Cup.

The year concluded with a triumph off the field as Japan hosted an impeccably organised FIFA Club World Cup in the cities of Yokohama and Toyota. Local heroes Kashiwa Reysol impressed global viewers with their performances, as did Spanish giants Barcelona with their stylish title claim, but the tournament’s organisation amid the hardship of 2011 was in many ways the crowning achievement.

Following the March disaster FIFA provided significant financial assistance to Japan for football infrastructure with FIFA President Joseph S. Blatter visiting the devastated Sendai area in December saying it was also important to provide solidarity telling local youngsters that “football is hope.”

The benchmark set by Japan’s football fraternity has indeed been both inspirational and unprecedented. Truly 2011 will be long remembered as Japan’s year in football.