Japan’s ever-growing influence in women’s football is reflected by a proud record in the FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup. World champions at senior level, Japan have played in one final and twice reached the quarter-finals. At the inaugural tournament six years ago in New Zealand, Japan were eliminated by England on penalties in the last-eight, with midfielder schemer Mana Iwabuchi receiving the adidas Golden Ball as the tournament’s best player. Two years later in Trinidad & Tobago, Japan reached the final only to unluckily succumb against Korea Republic on penalties. There was some solace, however, with Kumi Yokoyama claiming the adidas Silver Ball and adidas Bronze Boot for her six goals, including a stunning solo effort that was shortlisted for the FIFA Puskas Award. Two years ago in Azerbaijan, Japan were peerless in the group stage recording 17 unanswered goals with hefty wins over Brazil, New Zealand and Mexico, only to fall to Ghana in the last-eight.
Japan were in irrepressible goalscoring form during the qualifiers, netting 34 goals in just three games en route to the final. However, the showdown against old rivals Korea DPR was very different as Japan retained their crown thanks to a narrow penalty shoot-out win. There will be an extra dose of pressure on this generation with the U-20 national team surprisingly failing to qualify for Canada 2014.
The current crop displayed the classic Nadeshiko attributes of style and resilience in retaining their continental crown. Captain Hina Sugita walked away with the Most Valuable Player award during the qualifiers, while team-mate Rikako Kobayashi secured the top scorer title. Schooled in the same mould that has produced such success for Japanese women’s football across all levels in recent years, the Class of 2014 will be a serious contender for a podium finish.