Japan kick off their fifth consecutive appearance at the FIFA Women's World Cup finals on 11 September, and are looking to buck a recent trend by advancing to at least the quarter-final stage. In spite of their status as Asian heavyweights and having appeared at every edition of the elite event since 1991, the Japanese women have come up short in their last two tries at the highest level. In fact, the Nadeshiko - as the team is known back home - have failed to progress from the first round since reaching the last eight in Sweden 1995, their best-ever showing.
In order to best prepare for the calibre of opponents awaiting them close to home on Chinese soil, Japan recently took on the highly-rated national teams of fellow finalists Canada and Brazil in pre-tournament friendlies on 30 August and 2 September respectively in Tokyo.
The motivation behind the selection of teams with such wildly contrasting styles was simple: to learn more about the opposition they will encounter at the FIFA Women's World Cup China 2007. Set to open their group campaign against England and take on Germany in their third match, a run-out against a physically powerful Canada side was a logical move. Likewise, with the Nadeshiko up against Argentina in their second group fixture, Brazil and their highly technical brand of South American flair football were deemed ideal warm-up candidates.
On 30 August against Canada at the National Stadium in Tokyo, the difference in physical stature between the two teams' starting line-ups was clear. On average, the Japanese starting eleven was over two inches (5.6cm) shorter than their North American counterparts and over a stone-and-a-half (11.2kg) lighter. When quizzed about how his side planned to overcome their size disadvantage in China, Japan head coach Hiroshi Ohashi had this to say: "Against opponents like this with a much bigger build, we need to avoid playing at close quarters. We can then take control of the match by stringing passes together and creating shooting opportunities."
Although the Canadian test ended in a respectable 0-0 stalemate, with Japan goalkeeper Miho Fukumoto forced to make a series of splendid saves, the match proved useful. "We lost possession too often by making bad passes. This prevented us from fully neutralizing their height advantage. More than anything else, it forced us into playing a very difficult match where we had to defend far too many corners," said coach Ohashi after the final whistle, an opinion backed up by star midfielder Homare Sawa, who will be playing in her second straight finals.
"Canada use a lot of long balls to make the most of their height, so we played right into their hands. We definitely need to show our quality more in China by stringing passes together and making a difference in the final third," said the prolific goal-getter.
Next up were Brazil, semi-finalists at the Women's Olympic Football Tournament in Athens 2004, at the Fukuda Denshi Arena in Chiba. Posing a completely different kind of challenge than the Canadians, the Auriverde started with a very attacking formation deploying a pair of out-and-out strikers. Japan countered by changing their typical 4-4-2 set-up to a more defensive 3-5-2.
The reshuffle looked to have backfired early on, as Brazil scoring the opener after a Japanese defensive error. The Nadeshiko soon bounced back, however, levelling the contest from a well-taken free-kick and edged into the lead courtesy of an own goal. Attempting to close out the game and experiment with another new system, coach Ohashi realigned his charges into a 4-4-1-1 formation. Despite a fierce Brazilian onslaught, the Canarinha often throwing as many as eight players forward in attack, Japan hung on for a morale-boosting 2-1 victory.
Though undoubtedly benefiting from a healthy dose of good fortune, as well as wayward Brazilian finishing, the Japanese will no doubt be buoyed by the experience. As key striker Eriko Arakawa explained afterwards: "While Brazil's players are all extremely quick and skilful, it's not like they were on top of us the whole time. I really should have dribbled into space and made things happen a little more whenever they eased up on us."
With China 2007 looming large on the horizon, this was coach Ohashi's chance to experiment with different styles and gauge his squad's current form. Unable to freely exhibit their neat passing game and unsettle two such strong opponents, these friendly clashes showed what the Nadeshiko must do to compete against the world's best. "These matches have been really helpful. They've enabled me to see problem areas in our play that never surfaced during the Asian qualifiers. That makes this a very positive experience," said the well-respected strategist.
Japan have clearly improved this year, steadily absorbing Ohashi's tactical insights and posting impressive results along the way, though many of these came against a relatively low standard of opponent. Emerging unbeaten against both Canada and Brazil should ensure confidence in the camp is high going into September's showpiece tournament.
Many observers believe that Japan's results in China could depend on how they react when unable to engage their typically crisp passing moves and neat approach play. Coach Ohashi believes his players are composed and calm enough under pressure to deal with such situations. Should that be the case, matching the achievements of the class of 1995 is a distinct possibility.