Women's football in Japan has been given a much-needed popularity boost by the national team's FIFA Women's World Cup win, with domestic games drawing record crowds after years of slumping attendances. Nearly 18,000 supporters flocked to a Japan Women's Football League match yesterday, a week after the national team beat the United States on penalties in the women's World Cup final in Germany.
Two other games attracted more than 3,000 each, easily outstripping last season's average draw of 912 spectators. "The atmosphere resembled the World Cup although the climate is different because of the heat and the high humidity," Japan captain Homare Sawa said after her table-topping side INAC Kobe beat JEF United China 2-0. "We want to improve our quality much more."
The match followed a week of intense media interest in the 21-strong international squad - nicknamed the Nadeshiko. The side, who won the affections of their compatriots - still recovering after the 11 March earthquake, tsunami and ensuing nuclear crisis - with their never-say-die attitude, include three players with European clubs and two others now moving abroad.
"I will work so hard as to get the gold medal at the Olympics as well," Sawas, 32, who scored five goals to win the World Cup's golden boot and most valuable player's title. Japan have never won a medal in women's Olympic football, finishing fourth at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. The Asian qualifying round for next year's London Games starts in September.
The World Cup victory has spawned economic spin-off effects worth more than one trillion yen "including sales of uniforms, accessories, books and other related goods," said a media analyst at the CM Research Centre of Tokyo. It is a boon to the 220 players in the financially struggling league where most players can not get by on club salaries alone.
Sawa earns an annual salary estimated at a modest four million yen. "The league's new found popularity may be temporary," Waseda University professor Munehiko Harada, an expert on sports marketing, told AFP. "But the attendance may end some 50 per cent more than the last season. The league needs to promote itself continuously."