Anticipation is growing ahead of this month's AFC Women's Asian Cup, with the continent's finest gearing up to vie for spots at the FIFA Women's World Cup Canada 2015™. Five coveted places will be on offer between 14 and 25 May, and among the teams hopeful of claiming one are Jordan, who are dreaming of a maiden appearance in the main event on the same soil where their compatriots contested the FIFA U-20 World Cup 2007.
Turning that dream into reality will be no easy task, however, as Jordan face a number of top-quality obstacles on the road to the global showcase. Drawn in Group A, they are set for a daunting challenge against 2011 world champions Japan, 2010 Asian champions Australia and host nation Vietnam. As the side's Japanese coach Masahiko Okiyama told FIFA.com: "We're aware of the size of the task ahead as we'll be up against some very experienced teams, but that won't stop us from playing well."
Okiyama will travel to the Asian Cup eager to upset the odds, but he remains realistic about Jordan's overall chances. "Some of the big names in women's football are in our group," he said. "We'll undoubtedly finish last out of all the eight teams because this is our first appearance in a competition like this. We're aware of that, but we also know that matches are won on the pitch and we'll do everything we can to make life difficult for our opponents. We've studied the way they play and will put in place the appropriate tactics for each game. I think the standard of this tournament will be high because all the teams want to qualify for Canada 2015. In addition, the meteorological conditions look set to be favourable throughout the competition. We'll arrive there well in advance of the action so that we can adapt to the climate and I hope that everything will turn out as expected."
Appointed two years ago, Okiyama is pleased that his work with the players has been paying off. "The first job was to identify weaknesses, before improving the technical level of each player and then working on our collective play and physical conditioning," he said. "The players were able to take all those steps thanks to their desire and combative spirit. Our results in the qualifiers for the Asian Cup were excellent [a 5-0 win against Lebanon, 21-0 against Kuwait and 4-0 versus Uzbekistan] and we scored 30 goals without conceding. That did a lot of good for our morale in terms of keeping our focus and even increasing it during our training sessions and friendlies. That was obvious in our two friendly games against Bayern Munich, when we performed well. Our confidence has been sky high since we won back our West Asian Championship title last month."
Support and future plans
One crucial element in Jordan's recent form has been the support Okiyama has received since taking over the reins. "That's very important to the success of any team and especially in this region, where the social customs are quite unique," he explained. "I'd heard good things about this country and after arriving I was able to see for myself that the situation was favourable. The support we get knows no limits: the families of the players help them by bringing them to the stadium and encouraging them during the games, which allows the players to compete with clear heads. It's also important to underline the support of the Jordanian federation and its President, Prince Ali Bin Al Hussein, who has watched a number of matches. Just a few days ago, he paid us a surprise visit during training and met with the players. All of that has had a positive effect ahead of the continental finals.
"Our work is not solely focused on doing well in this competition," Okiyama added. "Whether we qualify or not, we know that this work must spread right to the grassroots, and that's the goal of the federation. The development of women's football begins with training – of players, coaches and officials. The creation of training centres will lead to an increase in the number of players in the near future and we're planning to organise a championship between the different centres. The many players who will learn the game there should go on to join clubs afterwards. This plan ought to help us achieve our goals in the next five to seven years, an end point that Jordanian football should be able to move steadily towards."
In addition to his role as coach of the women's team, Okiyama is also technical director of the women's football department at the Jordan Football Association (JFA). Understandably, he is also looking forward to the FIFA U-17 Women's World Cup 2016, which will be held on Jordanian turf. "I was very happy when FIFA awarded the organisation of this tournament to Jordan," he said. "The number of players will increase and that will help football in general. People will realise how much progress women's football has made and the ability of these young girls, both in terms of technique and tactical awareness. This international tournament will take Jordan to a new level and we hope it will lay solid foundations for work in the future.
"I'll be advising the team which will compete in the tournament and I'll take part in development planning," he continued. "The early indicators are very promising because the core of the side won the West Asian Championship twice in a row. We'll have to work on improving the technique of the team over the next two years in order to have an excellent World Cup."
More immediately, of course, Canada 2015 is the World Cup at the forefront of Okiyama's mind. And while he hopes his senior side can cause an upset in Vietnam, he has a clear idea of which teams will be competing for continental glory. "Japan, Korea DPR, China PR and Australia deserve top billing," he said. "Competition will be intense, though, and we'll try to make our dream come true by reaching the second round and booking our ticket to the World Cup. Why not? Nothing is impossible in football."
Whether we qualify or not, we know that this work must spread right to the grassroots, and that's the goal of the federation.