Japan have reached the semi-final of the Women’s Olympics Football Tournament in London, and the Young Nadeshiko are hoping to lift a trophy of their own at the FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup that starts in Japan this month.
Despite missing several influential players, coach Hiroshi Yoshida believes his side can emulate the senior team by capturing the ultimate football prize of their age category.
“I think these Japanese players are the most technically gifted in the world,” Yoshida said at a press conference last week. “I want my team to control each game so we can unleash the skills and style of football that we possess. Of course, I want to win. And I want this team to aim to play at an even higher level.”
Japan’s title aspirations took a potential body blow when forward Mana Iwabuchi was not selected for the squad, despite taking part in the Nadeshiko’s tilt for Women's Olympic Football Tournament glory. The winner of the Golden Ball Award at the FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup in 2008 had surgery on a toe in January, and it was decided she would be spared from the workload of the U-20 tournament so soon after London. Young Nadeshiko’s strikepower was neutralised further when forward Mai Kyokawa, who had been touted as a potential star was ruled out with injury.
Despite the loss of these two prolific forwards, Yoshida remains confident his side can clinch the title. “Naturally, my goal is to win the tournament. And maybe at some stage, I hope some of these players go on to play for the senior team,” he said.
Japan’s first group game is against Mexico on 19 August, followed by New Zealand on 22 August and Switzerland four days later. The first two games will be played in Miyagi Prefecture, a region that was hit hard by last year’s earthquake and tsunami disaster.
The U-20 team’s only high schooler, forward Ayaka Michigami, hails from Miyagi’s Tokiwagi Gakuen High School, a football powerhouse that also produced Nadeshiko defenders Saki Kumagai, who currently plays for UEFA Women's Champions League finalists 1.FFC Frankfurt, and Aya Sameshima, as well as Kyokawa and impressive U-20 midfielder Ayu Nakata.
Playing in Miyagi will hold a special significance for these players, and Yoshida is hoping Michigami will step up to fill the void left by Kyokawa and Iwabuchi. “She’s got all the physical attributes, she can run for 90 minutes and she’s strong,” Yoshida said. Japan will be counting on some vocal support during the tournament, and the coach believes his team can return the favour by encouraging and inspiring people still trying to recover from the 2011 disaster.
“Part of me really wanted to play here. I hope the team will work hard and show that we don’t give in, and that this will rub off on people watching us,” he said. Much of Japan’s play will revolve around midfielder Yoko Tanaka. Unafraid to shoot from outside the penalty box, Tanaka scored the winning goal against the USA Women’s U-20 team during a friendly in June. She is comfortable playing deep in midfield, but also can sit in behind the front line and add an extra edge to the attack.
Young Nadeshiko captain, midfielder Nozomi Fujita, is aware of the expectations resting on her team, given the recent remarkable success of Japanese women’s football. “We’ll try to live up to those expectations,” she said.