Japan first set their sights on New Zealand 2008 when Norio Sasaki, currently head coach of the women's full national side, was charged with "building a team to take on the world" in September 2006. In the build-up to last March's AFC U-16 Women's Championship Malaysia 2007, the baton was passed to Hiroshi Yoshida, renowned during the 1980s as one of the finest strikers in Japanese football.
Having underlined his determination to improve his players' individual ability, technique and mental toughness, Malaysia 2007 was the ideal opportunity for Yoshida to gauge their progress during his short time at the helm. And despite defeat to a physically powerful Korea DPR side in the title decider, Japan made sure of their place at the FIFA U-17 Women's World Cup 2008 and played some impressive football along the way.
Complementing the hard work put in by all those involved with the U-17 side, Japanese women's youth football in general has enjoyed considerable and increasing support in recent years. In the wake of the last year's continental U-16 showpiece in Malaysia, the Nadeshiko Challenge Project was set up to discover and develop the next generation of senior stars. Already including such talented youngsters as Chinatsu Kira, star striker for Japan's U-17s, the project aims to prepare players aged 15 and over to compete at the very highest level of world football.
Offering the tantalising incentive of three places at the FIFA U-17 Women's World Cup New Zealand 2008, the second-ever AFC U-16 Women's Championship was held in Malaysia from 8 to 17 March 2007. Reigning champions Japan were joined by five other countries, China PR, Korea Republic, Korea DPR, Australia and Thailand, with only the top three heading to Kiwi soil.
Drawn in Group B with Korea DPR and Thailand, the holders suffered a 1-0 reverse against the North Koreans before bouncing back to clinch second place with a 2-1 success over Thailand. Midfielder Saki Takano was the hero, scoring twice to ensure her side's place in the knockout stages.
Awaiting them in the last four were Group A winners China PR, who struck the game's first goal on the half-hour mark. However, Japan levelled matters just seven minutes later through midfielder Nozomi Fujita, before further strikes from front duo Mana Iwabuchi and Chinatsu Kira sealed a 3-1 win and booked their ticket to New Zealand.
Up next in the title decider were Japan's group-stage
nemesis Korea DPR, and the Koreans' physical superiority proved
decisive once more as they ran out 3-0 winners. Yet, despite the
disappointment of losing their continental crown, the Japanese
youngsters could take some consolation from their runners-up medals
and the tournament's Fair Play Award.
Head coach Hiroshi Yoshida has high hopes for his new-and-improved Japan U-17 squad at New Zealand 2008. Born in 1958, Yoshida went on to enjoy a successful playing career, topping the scoring charts in the Japan Soccer League, precursor to the J. League, with Furukawa Electric Soccer Club (now JEF United) in 1981 and 1985. However, perhaps his finest moment came in 1986, when he helped fire his beloved Furukawa to the Asian Champions Cup.
After hanging up his boots, Yoshida set off on a career in
coaching, starting out in 1992 with the reserve side at J. League
outfit Shimizu S-Pulse. From 1998 until the present, he has held
the reins at the Tokoha Gakuen school, whose middle-school team he
led to the national title in 2003. Simultaneously combining a
coaching role at the National Training Centre, Yoshida has
gradually built up a solid reputation for developing young players.
Prior to his appointment as head coach of the women's U-17 side
in 2007, he also gained valuable experience assisting Eiji Ueda at
the Women's Olympic Football Tournament Athens 2004.
What they said
"While I was very disappointed not to go all the way in Malaysia, I think we really got a lot out of the tournament. On top of everything the players have learned about fitness and technique, we discovered what we really have to work on from now on. I'm sure the frustration we feel after losing will drive the team to improve still further in the future." Japan coach Hiroshi Yoshida, after the AFC U-16 Women's Championship.