These are heady times for women’s football in Japan. The national team played with panache and style en route to becoming world champions with their breakthrough achievement at the FIFA Women’s World Cup Germany 2011™, a success they very nearly repeated at the 2012 Women’s Olympic Football Tournament, losing narrowly to USA in the final.
The modern brand of football demonstrated by Japan in claiming third place on home soil 18 months ago at the FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup was ample proof of the positive mentality that now exists throughout the nation’s development system. Carrying the torch in 2014 will be the young group of Japanese teenagers bound for next month’s FIFA U-17 Women’s Cup in Costa Rica.
As champions of the notoriously challenging Asian continent, Japan will certainly be among the teams to watch in Costa Rica. History, too, favours the Little Nadeshiko who have been runners-up and quarter-finalists over the three editions played to date. While Kumi Yokoyama's goal at Trinidad & Tobago 2010 remains one of the tournament's most enduring images.
Perhaps their greatest trump card, however, is their coach: national icon Asako Takakura. Now 45, Takakura enjoyed a stellar 15-year international career, playing in the first two FIFA Women’s World Cups and also the inaugural Olympic Women’s Football Tournament at Atlanta 1996. She is also considered Japan's first professional female player.
As a teenager, Takakura made the 200km trip each week from her home in Fukushima to better her football development. And though it is 15 years since her international career concluded, Takakura still cuts a lean and active figure on the training pitch. It is certainly easy to imagine the current crop of Japan youngsters drawing inspiration from their coaching mentor when they take the field in a group that also features Paraguay, New Zealand and Spain.
Stars in the making
Somewhat ominously for Japan’s opponents, Takakura told FIFA.com: “We have many players with plenty of potential to be in the senior women's national team in the future.” Preparations, though, have been relatively modest. The team are currently in USA for an invitational tournament alongside New Zealand, China PR and the hosts, before more training camps in Japan at the end of the month. “We've only had a short time (together) after the Asian qualifiers for preparation, but we will do the maximum possible for the World Cup.”
Previous years have seen Japan’s various teams play in a distinct style, but can we expect the same from the Little Nadeshiko at Costa Rica 2014? “Based on the ‘Nadeshiko Vision', each category of women's national team, from senior to youth, train with a consistent vision,” says Takakura. “The same style of football is also introduced to our team.”
The 'Nadeshiko Vision' is an ongoing JFA project launched in 2007, which is a blueprint for women’s football development with specific objectives such as making women’s football a major sport in Japan, a focus on youth development and trying “to reach the world’s top five by 2015”.
Despite the remarkable success of recent years, Japan’s current crop of U-17 players will perhaps shoulder slightly more burden than normal with the U-20 team suffering a shock elimination in Canada 2014 qualifying. Nevertheless, Takakura believes the nation's recent successes “are stimulating and inspiring” to her players.
The affable Takakura says results are not her sole aim. “The young players change and improve every single day,” she said. “I'm finding great joy in coaching this team, and it is also a pleasure to tell the players the history and growth of women's football and my experiences as a player.”