Although Japan's road to the FIFA Women's World Cup was more arduous than many expected, their play-off victory over CONCACAF's third-placed side Mexico in March means the Nadeshiko can finally get down to the business of preparing for September's showpiece in China. Making amends for their fourth-place finish at last year's AFC Women's Championship, Japan recorded a 3-2 aggregate win over the Tricolor to secure their fifth straight finals' appearance and climb to ninth in the FIFA Women's World Ranking - their highest ever position.
The progress of the women's game in Japan has benefited greatly from an aggressive long-term development policy. The senior squad have been consistently impressive on both the continental and world stage, further boosting the standing of women's football domestically. It was after one of their most notable triumphs - a 3-0 win over powerful east Asian rivals Korea DPR in the 2004 Olympic qualifiers - that the team began being referred to as Nadeshiko, the Japanese word for the wild pink carnation that has come to symbolise the country's ideal woman.
The emergence of star midfielder Homare Sawa as a national celebrity has also added to the appeal of women's football in Japan, pushing the team and their results further into the spotlight. Sawa has racked up an eye-catching 60 international goals in her 118 senior appearances and has appeared in three previous FIFA Women's World Cups.
Though in no doubt that, in Sawa, he possesses a pivotal player, head coach Hiroshi Ohashi has assembled a strong and well-balanced squad whose main strength is its selfless teamwork. Every member of the group, whether old or young, starter or squad player, is capable of playing good positional football and linking up well with team-mates. As a result, Japan invariably prove adept at creating space and passing their way through oppositions' defences.
Come September, the Nadeshiko will be aiming to reverse a trend that has seen them fail to qualify for the last eight of a FIFA Women's World Cup since Sweden 95, prompting Ohashi and his charges to adopt the adidas slogan 'Impossible is nothing' as their team motto.
Japan's journey to China 2007 started off well enough as the side roared through a group containing China PR, Vietnam and Chinese Taipei with a perfect record at last July's AFC Women's Championship in Australia. Things then took a turn for the worse, with the team losing 2-0 to an impressive Australia side in the ensuing semi-final.
Having played poorly against the hosts, Japan had no margin for error when they then faced pre-tournament favourites Korea DPR for the tournament's last automatic finals' berth in the match for third place. However, with only two wins in their previous 11 meetings against perhaps their fiercest rivals, Japan knew they were in for a tough test.
Korea DPR lived up to their billing and played inspired football
to build a sizable 3-0 lead in just 39 minutes. although Japan
managed to get back into the game after pulling two goals back,
Korea DPR held on, relegating the Nadeshiko to their second
play-off against Mexico in consecutive FIFA World Cup qualifying
Approaching the play-off with renewed confidence, the squad again showed exemplary teamwork to win the first leg 2-0 in Tokyo. The return game, held at an intimidating altitude of 2600m in Toluca, proved as difficult as expected after Mexico went firmly on the offensive. However, Arakawa scored the opening goal after 11 minutes, enabling Japan to survive a difficult encounter with a 3-2 aggregate win and book their places at the FIFA Women's World Cup.
A proponent of tactical flexibility and strong teamwork, Hiroshi Ohashi has been consistently lauded since taking the reins of the Nadeshiko in November 2004. A one-time coaching instructor for the Japan Football Association, he also led the Japanese club INAS-FID during the 2001-2002 season. For the 2002 Asian Games, he was on the coaching staff of the Japanese women's team, and has also had a spell in charge of Singapore's Albirex Niigata.
FIFA Women's World Cup history:
What they said...
"Teamwork is our strongest point. In many ways, it's our reserve players and not our starters who determine the outcome of matches." - Hiroshi Ohashi, speaking before the play-off with Mexico.