A little over a year ago gold ticker-tape rained down in Frankfurt to honour Japan following a thrilling, albeit unlikely, win at the 2011 FIFA Women’s World Cup™. Women’s football in the east Asian nation has not been the same since.
Now sandwiched at the other end of the 12-month period, Japan are on the verge of hosting FIFA’s premier youth women’s football tournament, the first women’s world cup to be held in the country. The opening whistle to the FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup Japan 2012 will ring around Saitama’s Komaba Stadium on 19 August for a mouth-watering contest between Brazil and Italy, but all eyes will be on Miyagi a few hours later as the host nation tackles Mexico.
The Nadeshiko’s triumph at Germany 2011 provided a beacon of hope to a nation still reeling from the devastating earthquake and tsunami which struck in March of last year. The Miyagi Prefecture suffered a massive toll, but now the region will be centre-stage on the opening day, ahead of two further matchdays at the venue.
Japan’s success in Germany, which came three decades since the national team played their maiden international, may have caught many by surprise. The team had won just a handful of matches in FIFA Women’s World Cup competition despite being regular attendees at the quadrennial jamboree. Indeed, they still have never been crowned Asian champions; an anomaly that they will hope to correct sooner rather than later.
The Japan Football Association in 2007 set a target of Japan being in the world’s top five by 2015. A fourth-placed finish at the 2008 Olympic Football Tournament in Beijing indicated immediate growth, but proved to be a mere precursor to that memorable golden success in Germany three years later.
On the back of Germany 2011 the team secured lucrative commercial deals, made numerous TV appearances and became the first sports team to receive the people's honour award from the government.
But the positive spin-offs were not just confined to the players with the national competition – known as the Nadeshiko League – enjoying a three-fold increase in crowd numbers. Indeed, the month after Homare Sawa lifted the FIFA Women’s World Cup, a match between Albirex Niigata Ladies and INAC Kobe Leonessa set a new national women's attendance record of 24,546. Crowd numbers at national team matches were equally impressive and Japan earlier this year hosted the inaugural women’s Kirin Cup with USA and Brazil completing a high-profile field.
There has also been several sponsorship offers for the national league, while later this year the national Cup final will be held as a stand-alone event rather than as a curtain-raiser to the men’s equivalent. Participation rates have increased, while a host of players have made the move to the highly-regarded leagues of France and Germany.
Now it is the turn of the Young Nadeshiko to carry the torch lit by the senior team. The portents, if results and momentum are any gauge, look promising for Japan. Last year the team recorded five victories to be crowned Asian U-19 champions. Indeed the results contributed to Japan’s three national teams concluding the year with a remarkable record of just one loss from 21 competitive matches.
Following a tour of France in March, Japan hosted two-time FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup champions USA in Osaka, securing a 1-0 victory. Japan though will have to make do without Mai Kyokawa next month after the star midfielder, who was named the best player at the AFC U-19 Women’s Championship, suffered a severe knee injury earlier this year while playing for national champions INAC Leonessa.
Japan coach Hiroshi Yoshida can, however, call upon attacking starlet Mana Iwabuchi, currently with the senior side at the Women’s Olympic Football Tournament. So too, there will be a host of graduates from the team, coached by Yoshida, which narrowly failed to win the final of the 2010 FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup.
“For the World Cup we need to improve our physical strength,” said Yoshida after the qualifiers. “We also want to improve our style of football. We want to play interesting football for the fans. Even in very difficult situations we want to play with our style.”