Japan and Korea DPR came out on top of a hugely-competitive and intense 11-day competition to win through to next year’s Women’s Olympic Football Tournament in London. The pair put aside vastly contrasting experiences at the FIFA Women’s World Cup™ to ensure a top-two finish in the six-nation competition, which concluded on Sunday. Just six weeks since a downpour of gold ticker-tape in Frankfurt heralded the beginning of their reign as world champions, Japan managed to successfully refocus their energies despite their new-found, and potentially distracting, standing as national heroines.
Korea DPR’s preparations for the qualifying tournament in Jinan, China may have taken a greatly divergent path in comparison, but it was one that nevertheless proved equally successful. The North Koreans suffered a disappointing group-stage exit at Germany 2011 with just a single point to show for their three matches. Highly successfully over the past decade in Asia, Korea DPR displayed characteristic resolve to bounce back and finish second narrowly ahead of Australia, followed by China PR, Korea Republic and Thailand. Of the 15 matches at the tournament, all, aside from those involving bottom-side Thailand, were won by a single goal, or were drawn, to once again display the depth of quality across Asia's elite women’s nations.
Champions confirm class
Despite the intensity of competition, Japan were able to provide validation of their world champions tag. An undefeated run of four wins from five was impressive, with a perfect record denied only by an injury-time Korea DPR equaliser.
Japan were able to field virtually all of their FIFA Women’s World Cup-winning squad, including adidas Golden Ball winner Homare Sawa. However, in contrast to their free-scoring displays in Germany, the Nadeshiko managed just eight goals across their five matches. Leading the charge with two goals apiece was the unlikely figure of defender Asuna Tanaka, and two-goal hero from July’s semi-final win against Sweden, Nahomi Kawasumi.
Japan’s resolve and focus was in display in the final round where, despite having guaranteed qualification on the penultimate matchday, a hard-working performance was enough to beat the host nation by a solitary goal. “We felt under pressure but got through with our team solidarity,” said midfielder Aya Miyama, who racked up a century of caps during the competition. “I hope we can develop our game further while each one of us is playing for our own [club] team.”
Three-time Asian champions Korea DPR secured successive appearances at the Olympic Games with a two-point margin over third-placed Australia. The pivotal contest ultimately proved to be the very first match of the tournament which saw the North Koreans edge continental champions Australia. A lone goal after just ten minutes from Kim Su Gyong against the Matildas proved decisive come the tournament’s end.
It was to be further anguish for the Australians, who miss out on the Olympics for the second successive time – pipped on both occasions by the North Koreans. This latest defeat against their nemesis, combined with another 1-0 loss against Japan, proved to be fatal blows despite the team recovering to defeat China and Korea Republic. Australia’s woes were compounded by injuries throughout the tournament culminating in a trio of Germany 2011 stars – Catlin Foord, Kyah Simon and Sally Shipard - all unavailable for the final match.
China PR went into the tournament seeking to prove that missing the 2011 FIFA Women’s World Cup was merely an aberration. However, despite a credible draw against Korea DPR, the tournament was again a disappointing one for the hosts, who scored just two goals – both against Thailand in their only win of the tournament.
Although finishing second from bottom, a youthful Korea Republic team continue to demonstrate their rapid improvement. Success at youth level in recent years is starting to be translated to performances at senior level. On the back of winning the 2010 FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup and a semi-final finish at the 2010 FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup, the Koreans displayed their new found confidence in Jinan. Led in attack by dynamic No10 Ji So Yun, who scored in a 2-1 defeat against Japan, the South Koreans appear more than capable of returning to the senior FIFA Women’s World Cup in four years time – a stage they haven’t graced since 2003.
“Korea Republic have been the unluckiest team at the tournament,” said Australia’s veteran coach Tom Sermanni. “They could easily have won every game they played and are certainly the most improved team in the Confederation over the last couple of years.”