Japan relishing U-20 challenge
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When natural disasters strike, it can take years for the affected region to get back on its feet, with large chunks of energy and finances needing to be channelled into rebuilding efforts. It is therefore testimony to the resilience of the Japanese that, less than a year after their country was devastated by a huge earthquake, they were the ones stepping in to deliver speedy assistance – agreeing to host this year’s FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup following December’s decision by the FIFA Executive Committee that Uzbekistan would not be ready to stage the event.

“It goes without saying that preparing to host a tournament like this at short notice poses certain challenges, but we’re well aware of what it takes to host a tournament of this nature successfully," Local Organising Committee director Hiroshi Nogami told FIFA World during a February visit to FIFA’s Zurich headquarters. "Japan is relishing the U-20 challenge having jointly hosted the 2002 FIFA World Cup™ and also regularly hosting the FIFA Club World Cup in recent years,” 

One of the first major tasks that the organisers had to tackle was securing the stadiums for a tournament taking place just as the men’s professional J.League domestic competition is getting underway.

“We were only confirmed as hosts as the J.League was finalising its schedule for next season – leaving us with quite a challenge to find stadiums that were still available,” Nogami explained.

That challenge has already been more than met, however, with Nogami’s team successfully booking five stadiums (in Kobe, Hiroshima, Miyagi, Saitama and Tokyo). These stadiums have capacities ranging from 21,500 in Saitama to 53,000 in Tokyo’s National Stadium, which is scheduled to host the tournament final on 8 September.

However, it is the Miyagi Stadium which gives the clearest indication of how far Japan’s beleaguered nation has progressed since last year’s trauma. The massive tremor shattered glass, cracked walls and damaged roof pillars at the stadium, which is located near the epicentre of the 9.0-magnitude earthquake, but repairs are being carried out and the stadium is due to reopen in the summer.

“By staging matches in the earthquake hit region, we want to show the world that with their help the situation has improved and we’re back on course,” says Nogami. “The decision to play matches in Miyagi Stadium is a sign of encouragement not only to the people of the affected region, but for the whole of Japan, and it also gives us an opportunity to show our gratitude for the support we received from the worldwide football family last year.”

Fertile ground
In addition to Japan’s experience of hosting FIFA tournaments and the excellent standard of its existing infrastructure and stadiums, another compelling reason to take the tournament to Japan was the spiralling interest in women’s football following the national team’s memorable triumph over the USA at the FIFA Women’s World Cup™ in 2011.

The victorious Nadeshiko players have since acquired celebrity status in Japan, appearing on chat shows and in TV commercials, while their inspirational captain Homare Sawa and coach Norio Sasaki received individual acclamation when they were named FIFA Women’s World Player and World Coach of the Year for Women’s Football respectively at the FIFA Ballon d’Or gala in January.

The high calibre of the teams who’ve qualified is a real bonus. There’s a real sense of excitement building among Japanese fans at the prospect of seeing the next generation of world stars.
Local Organising Committee director Hiroshi Nogami

On the back of all this international success, the Japanese women’s league has enjoyed a boom in sponsorship and attendance figures, as young girls ask their parents to take them to watch their heroines.

“One of the primary tasks facing any tournament organiser is raising the profile of their event among the country’s own population, but Japan is already fertile ground for women’s football after the World Cup win in Germany,” Nogami points out.

“So our aim with the U-20 tournament is to build further on that existing interest, using promotional events to attract even more fans and particularly girls to the stadiums to enjoy the matches. We’re also working now on plans to cooperate with local groups and schools and stage events at J.League and women’s league matches. And above all, we’ll make sure it’s a comfortable environment for all the family to come along and watch a game.”

Strong field
Of course, Japan’s fans will also be hoping to see their own U-20 team capitalise on home advantage and build on the country’s phenomenal success last year, in which they won not only the FIFA Women’s World Cup but also the Asian Football Confederation titles at U-19 and U-17 level.

Standing in their way of further glory, however, will be a number of teams from the world’s leading women’s football nations, including defending champions Germany and former tournament winners Korea DPR and the USA.

The Americans, who won the inaugural FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup in Canada in 2002 before lifting the trophy for a second time in Chile four years ago, secured their qualifying place for Japan 2012 just a few weeks ago with victory at the CONCACAF Under-20 Women’s Championship in Panama. The USA will be one of three teams representing the region, with runners-up Canada and third-placed Mexico also progressing from the qualifying event.

Germany, who first won the U-20 world title in Thailand in 2004 before doubling up on home soil two years ago, will meanwhile head up a quartet of European teams including established women’s footballing power Norway and the rising forces of Italy and Switzerland.

Korea Republic and two-time U-20 runners-up China PR complete Asia’s quartet, while the familiar faces of Argentina and the everpresent Brazilians, five-time winners of their continental U-20 championship, will be representing South America.

New Zealand will again feature at the tournament after being crowned in Oceania, while the final list of participating teams will be confirmed in the coming weeks with the final stage of African qualifying taking place in May. The next key date for the organisers, the tournament draw, is scheduled for early June.

“The high calibre of the teams who’ve qualified is a real bonus,” said Nogami. “There’s a real sense of excitement building among Japanese fans at the prospect of seeing the next generation of world stars.”