Having led his team to success at the FIFA Women’s World Cup 2011™ against USA, Norio Sasaki’s Japan lost the rematch 2-1 in the Olympic final in London. However, four years after finishing fourth in Beijing, Japan have confirmed their emergence as a force to be reckoned with under the leadership of their coach, who has held the post since 2007.
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 U-20 national team and as assistant coach to the senior team. Sasaki was also 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-placed 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-placed finish at the 2008 Women’s Olympic Football Tournament in Beijing. Eventual gold-medalists 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 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 setback, 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.