Nadeshiko on the up

A defining moment in the history of women's football in Japan was the national team's surprise qualification for the Athens Olympics in 2004. In the wake of that success, the fans honoured the team with the nickname Nadeshiko - the name given to the stately ladies of the Samurai era. The team went on to reach the quarter-finals in Athens, where they were defeated by the USA.

Their success in Athens has spurred Japan on to further improvement. The team has reached the semi-finals of the previous two AFC Women's Asian Cups, obtaining the bronze medal in 2008, and they shocked regional powerhouses China and Korea DPR by taking out the East Asian Football Federation championships in February.

Coach Norio Sasaki, 50, is convinced that they can surprise the world and claim a medal in Beijing. "I've chosen players who I think can compete with the very cream of women's football, and I've tried to strike a good balance within the squad."

The Nadeshiko side is certainly not short of experience, although Nozomi Yamago, whom many consider Japan's finest ever goalkeeper, has not been selected for the Olympics. Miho Fukumoto, a much taller keeper, has impressed in training. The defensive line is led by the vastly experienced Hiromi Ikeda, who has amassed 112 caps in an illustrious career. Following a training match against a local men's high school team on 21 July, the 32-year-old central defender summed up Japan's preparations for the Beijing Olympics in one short sentence: "We're getting stronger every day."

Homare Sawa, who starred at the EAFF Championships and made an equally strong impression at the Women's Asian Cup, is the creator-in-chief in midfield. She will be ably supported by Mizuno Sakaguchi, who is capable of both joining in the attack and dropping back to help the back four. The Japanese are also blessed with the pace of Aya Miyama on the wing, and Sawa, for one, is confident that the midfield can contribute substantially to Japan's scoring tally.

Troubles up front
It is in attack that Sasaki's troops look a little weak. The coach admits that while his side has boasted a strong defence for some time, they have problems with converting chances. "We have few problems with our defence, but finishing is an issue. We are still struggling to make the most of the chances we create."

Japan will play two further warm-up games in the lead-up to the Olympics. The first match is against Australia on 24 July in Kobe, the other against Argentina five days later in Tokyo. Their first opponents in China will be tournament newcomers New Zealand, whom they meet on 6 August; their quarter-final opponents from Athens, the USA, are next up three days afterwards, and they finish their group campaign against Norway on 12 August.

The USA are the defending Olympic champions, while Norway won gold at Sydney 2000; Japan will certainly have their work cut out. But Sasaki, who was Japan's assistant coach at the previous Games, has confidence in his team's abilities. "The team's determination to win a medal is even stronger than mine," he remarked. "No matter who we play, I'm convinced that this is a squad that can make it to the quarter-finals."

Japan squad

Goalkeepers: Miho Fukumoto (Okayama Yunogo Belle), Ayumi Kaihori (INAC Leonessa)

Defenders: Hiromi Ikeda (TASAKI Perule), Miyuki Yanagita (Urawa Reds Ladies), Kozue Ando (Urawa Reds Ladies), Yukari Kinga (Nippon TV Beleza),
Kyoko Yano (Urawa Reds Ladies), Azusa Iwashimizu (Nippon TV Beleza)

Midfielders: Tomoe Kato (Nippon TV Beleza), Homare Sawa (Nippon TV Beleza), Ayumi Hara (INAC Leonessa), Aya Miyama (Okayama Yunogo Belle), Mizuho Sakaguchi (TASAKI Perule), Rumi Utsugi (Nippon TV Beleza)

Forwards: Eriko Arakawa (Nippon TV Beleza), Karina Maruyama (TEPCO Mareeze), Shinobu Ohno (Nippon TV Beleza), Yuki Nagasato (Nippon TV Beleza)