Japan’s ever-growing influence in women’s football at senior level is reflected by a proud record in the FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup, where they are reigning champions. Japan were deservedly crowned Costa Rica 2014 queens after a proficient and mature showing that seemed beyond their tender years. That performance aside, Japan have been runners-up, and twice reached the quarter-finals. At the inaugural tournament eight years ago in New Zealand, Japan were eliminated by England on penalties in the last-eight, with midfielder schemer Mana Iwabuchi receiving the adidas Golden Ball as the tournament’s best player. Two years later in Trinidad & Tobago, Japan reached the final only to unluckily succumb against Korea Republic on penalties. There was some solace, however, with Kumi Yokoyama claiming the adidas Silver Ball and adidas Bronze Boot, including a stunning solo effort that was shortlisted for the FIFA Puskas Award. At Azerbaijan 2012, Japan were peerless in the group stage recording 17 unanswered goals with three hefty wins, only to fall to Ghana in the quarter-finals. Again there was personal recognition in Costa Rica with Hina Sugita winning the adidas Golden Ball, while midfielder Yui Hasegawa and goalkeeper Mamiko Matsumoto also claimed awards.
Though the always challenging Asian qualification tournament offered just two tickets to the world stage, Japan always looked to have passage to Jordan 2016 within their reach. They did, however, find a major challenge in the form of Korea DPR. Japan won their group on goal difference, though they were held to a draw by their rivals. The Little Nadeshiko cruised past Thailand in the semi-finals, but Korea DPR won the decider 1-0 overturning the result from two years earlier.
The current crop displayed the classic Nadeshiko attributes of style and resilience for much of last year’s qualifying campaign. Somewhat uncharacteristically, however, they failed to break down Korea DPR in the final, nor dominate possession. Schooled in the same mould that has produced such success for Japanese women’s football across all levels in recent years, it will be a major surprise if the Class of 2016 are not a serious contender for a podium finish on their own continent.