What Japan might lack in stature, they make up for with their skill, speed and intelligence on the ball. Towered over by their opponents at the FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup Azerbaijan 2012 when the national anthems sound, the disciplined Japanese have shown they are more than a match for anyone when the whistle blows.
Aside from their innate footballing ability, however, there is another reason why the Little Nadeshiko are proving such a tough proposition in Azerbaijan, one founded on the tragedy that befell the country in March 2011, when its eastern coastline was hit by a devastating earthquake and tsunami.
Seven of Hiroshi Yoshida’s squad play for JFA Academy Fukushima and saw with their own eyes the destruction caused by nature that fateful day, a day on which thousands of people were killed and the city’s nuclear plant suffered a major radiation leak. The seven are Nene Inoue, Shiori Miyake, Ruka Norimatsu, Yui Narumiya, Rika Masuya, Chika Hirao and Miku Kojima, six of whom started Japan’s opening game in Azerbaijan, a 5-0 mauling of Brazil.
Their daily routine of lessons and training sessions at the comfortable surroundings of the local academy was shattered when the disaster struck. Indeed, the players were forced to seek temporary shelter due to the risk of radioactive contamination and receive support from local people in the aftermath of the tragedy.
“I was studying when the accident happened,” recalled influential midfielder Yui Narumiya. “We wanted to get out, but we met up with our colleagues and waited for the situation to calm down a bit. People living nearby brought us food and basic items and then we were taken to shelter for the homeless. There was always someone there to look after us. It was at that time that I realised that a lot of the things you think are normal are anything but.”
Forward Rika Masuya was not at the academy when the earthquake struck. She spent the evening trying to find her way back by car with a friend. Yet, such was the chaos in the city that she did not arrive until the morning after, by which time she was cold, hungry and unsure if her friends were safe and sound.
The No10 took up the story: “I tried to contact my friends but I couldn’t get hold of any of them. When I got there, they took me to the shelter, where everyone else was, and I got all the help I needed.
"We didn’t know when things would go back to normal or when we’d be able to play again, but in the end we only had a month away," she continued. "Before the earthquake we had incredible facilities for playing football and we got everything we needed, like food and accommodation. I learned that you have to value things like that and give thanks to everyone around you. It taught me a lot of crucial lessons about life.”
Built in 2006 as a model educational establishment and situated in Naraha-cho, not far from the Fukushima nuclear plant, the academy remains closed, with its pupils now receiving their training and classes in the nearby province of Shizuoka.
Growth and change
“I don’t know about the team but we’ve grown a lot as individuals,” continued Masuya. “Maybe having gone through all this has made us more mature. We’ve had to adapt to a new reality, and all of sudden we’ve gone from having everything at our fingertips to a situation where there are no home comforts. Perhaps that’s made us grow and become stronger. We’ve been very lucky with everything the people of Fukushima have done for us.”
Coach Yoshida has nothing but admiration for the players and the way in which they have faced up to adversity. “These girls have gone through a very difficult time,” he said. “Their lives have changed completely, though they’ve still had the chance to carry on playing football. They know that there are others who lost everything they had, and they are very grateful to all the people around them for all the support they have received.
“They have learned a lot and that’s had a big impact on the way they see things," he concluded. "These players now see it as their duty to go out and play football on behalf of the people of Fukushima. They want to perform well and give the people of the city a lift, send out a message. They see it as their mission.”