Marta, Alex Morgan, Saki Kumagai, Christine Sinclair, Celia Okoyino Da Mbabi, Camille Abily. All stars of the modern game that kick-started their international journey at the FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup.
This year the latest crop of young talent will be unveiled to the world as Japan hosts the 2012 edition of FIFA’s second-oldest women’s tournament. The sixth edition of the FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup is taking place in Asia for the second time, with Thailand having played host in 2004, two years after the inaugural event in Canada.
Not only did the Nadeshiko impress with their style and grace, but the team’s victory lifted a nation suffering under the enormity of March’s devastating earthquake and tsunami (known in Japan as the Great East Earthquake).
The Japan Football Association (JFA) is set to host the second of three FIFA tournaments in a period of just 12 months. August’s FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup is sandwiched neatly between the FIFA Club World Cups of 2011 and 2012, held annually in December.
Barcelona may have been stunning on-field victors last December, but perhaps less apparent to the watching world was the efficient manner in which the event was delivered, and all the evidence based on the organisation surrounding June's Official Draw suggests that the tournaments of 2012 will be equally well-organised.
All this despite Japan only assuming responsibility for the tournament in February after the FIFA Executive Committee decided that Uzbekistan could no longer organise the event, due to a number of logistical and technical issues.
Most heartening perhaps was the morale boost to a nation so deeply affected by tragedy, the magnitude of which is set to resonate for decades. Homare Sawa’s joyous lifting of the trophy into the balmy Frankfurt summer air was, as FIFA President Joseph S. Blatter described on his visit to Japan last September, ‘a symbol of hope’.
In what is a metaphor for the latent power of women’s football, Japanese interest and participation has increased exponentially and the players’ modest profiles have suddenly been elevated to that of sought-after celebrities, something that was unthinkable little more than 12 months ago.
Numbers attending matches in the Nadeshiko League – Japan’s two-decade-old women’s national league – have increased five-fold, while young females have taken up the game in record numbers.
Such considerations were adeptly rolled into the tournament logo and slogan by the JFA. The logo’s centrepiece is a crane, the traditional paper creation beloved by Japanese youth and young at heart alike. The predominantly pink background reflects Japan’s Nadeshiko flower, after whom the national team is named.
The slogan “Hope Leads” succinctly represents what the 21-day tournament will surely symbolise - optimism through youth.
It was a slogan that Chairman of the Local Organising Committee Junji Ogura proudly unveiled at June’s Official Draw. “FIFA selected Japan to host this year’s FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup because they saw how women’s football has taken off in Japan,” said Ogura.
“Also because they wanted to encourage the people who were affected by last year’s earthquake and tsunami by choosing Miyagi as one of the host venues, and to remind the world of the enduring struggle of the Tohoku people as they continue on the long path of recovery. The event emblem we announced reflects such wishes, and we unveil the slogan with similar pride.”
The terrible toll suffered in Japan last year will surely remain in the consciousness of all those participating in the tournament. Indeed, Nadeshiko midfielder Azusa Iwashimizu, who hails from the affected area, commented at the draw that she hoped the tournament would give energy and courage to the people in the devastated areas.
Iconic Nadeshiko captain Sawa, who is also an Ambassador for the tournament, is backing the team in their quest for both success and the opportunity to build the profile of women’s football in Japan.
“It is a great opportunity to get attention from so many people, and one rarely has a chance to play in a FIFA event in your own country,” said Sawa, prior to departing for London 2012. “Hopefully we will bring back a good result from the London Olympics so that we can build the momentum and encourage the girls of Japan’s U-20 women's national team.”
Now the focus is turning to the 16 teams, each with their respective hopes and dreams for glory in a nation that has shown what can be achieved with resolute spirit and a sense of optimism.
Sweet 16 aim to shine bright
June’s stylish draw in Tokyo laid out the pathway to glory for each of the 16 participating nations. If history is any gauge then the draw provided bad news for Group D combatants Ghana and China PR, with the pair pitted alongside USA and Germany; winners of four of the five tournaments held to date.
Germany will be seeking to retain their title after claiming the crown on home soil two years ago in a tournament which proved to be a perfect precursor to last year’s FIFA Women’s World Cup.
USA, meanwhile, so often the favourites heading into any women’s football tournament, will perhaps have an additional hunger for success. Two years ago their U-17 side became the first and only United States team to fail in their quest to reach a women’s world cup.
This despite a remarkable qualifying campaign in which they racked up 38 goals without reply, only to miss passage to the world stage following a penalty shoot-out defeat against Canada. With around half of that playing group likely to make the trip to Japan, expect the Stars & Stripes to display a steely determination whenever they take the field.
Japan head up Group A as the seeded team, where they will face three unassuming but undoubtedly growing names in the women’s game: New Zealand, Mexico and Switzerland. As always a degree of pressure will be on the home team when they take the field in Tokyo and also Miyagi, the east coast region which suffered massive damage in the earthquake.
There is set to be additional poignancy surrounding the match against New Zealand in Miyagi, with the Oceania nation also experiencing tragedy after the city of Christchurch was afflicted by a major earthquake in 2011.
The host nation’s U-20 team played their part in a stunning 2011 calendar year by topping their five-match qualifying campaign without suffering defeat. The year included the national team’s victory at Germany 2011, and a repeat of that success with a win in Asia’s London 2012 qualifying campaign, while the U-17 side reached October’s World Cup in Azerbaijan with ease.
Indeed, Japan lost just once across the 21 competition matches played by their various national teams and even that defeat was an inconsequential group stage loss at Germany 2011 against England, when top spot in the group had already been assured.
Asian teams have a long history of success at FIFA’s two women’s youth tournaments, and Korea DPR, the only other nation aside from USA and Germany to claim success over the five previous editions of the tournament, find themselves confronted by a major challenge.
Two traditionally strong contenders – Norway and Canada – are also eyeing progress to the last eight, with Group C rounded out by Argentina, who undoubtedly will be aiming to again provide evidence of the rapid advances made recently in South American women’s football.
Group B features a similarly diverse spread of geography headed by Brazil, for so long a challenger on the world stage, but still without a trophy to their name in a FIFA tournament. Germany 2010 runners-up Nigeria also feature, as do Italy, making a welcome return to the world stage.
The most intriguing participant perhaps is Korea Republic, who, despite winning the 2010 FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup against, of all nations, Japan in a thrilling final, only reached the tournament belatedly.
The South Koreans finished fourth after beating Australia on the final day of qualifying in what appeared to be an inconsequential contest, only for the match in hindsight to effectively be a play-off to the world stage, with an extra spot opening up in Asia after Japan assumed hosting from Uzbekistan.
All eyes will be on the performances of the hosts, with their new-found status in the global pecking order, and confidence within the team should be high after their performance in qualifying.
“We have many players with good techniques and we are confident in our offence using our passes,” said midfielder Ayu Nakada. “We want to express our strength and show our never-give-up spirit on the pitch.”
Few would be prepared to bet against Japan featuring at the tournament denouement on 8 September. Even fewer would bet against Japan 2012 being a resounding success and a joyous celebration of women’s football.