When Japan take to the pitch for their FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup Papua New Guinea 2016 semi-final against France on Tuesday 29 November, coach Asako Takakura will have more than a possible final appearance in her sights. After all, few people have a better insight into the way these youth tournaments can help when working with a senior national side than she does. In addition to overseeing the U-20s, Takakura steered the U-17s to World Cup glory in 2014 and has been in charge of the senior team since last spring – an arrangement unlike any other in women’s football.
"The main advantage of looking after players from U-17 level onwards is that you can observe their development extremely well,” she told FIFA.com. “I can judge their potential better if I’ve been working with them over several years. For me, winning the FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup was a kind of springboard to the next level,” Takakura added, before explaining: “After the tournament I’ll decide which players are good enough to progress to the first team. Several of them are capable of taking that step."
Women’s youth teams from Asia showed again last month why they are consistently among the favourites at any major tournament as Korea DPR and Japan battled it out for the U-17 Women’s World Cup title in Jordan. Although the Young Nadeshiko lost that particular showdown, the former international – capped 79 times for her country – was nonetheless quick to express how proud she was of her young charges. "When it comes to technique and pace, we are on the same level as North Korea, but we still have some ground to make up in physical terms,” she explained. “We take our youth development very seriously at home, so good World Cup results always give us a boost. Winning the Women’s World Cup in 2011 not only generated more interest in the game but also vastly improved our youth work. That victory inspired a new generation. It was a turning point for women’s football in Japan."
In April 2016 Takakura took over as women’s national team coach from Norio Sasaki, who led Japan to two FIFA Women’s World Cup™ finals and Olympic silver at London 2012 but resigned after failing to secure qualification for the Women’s Olympic Football Tournament 2016. He handed over the reins to a woman renowned for her talent and creativity for both her club Yomiuri-Seiyu Beleza and her country during her playing career.
The hopes of a nation now rest on the shoulders of the 48-year-old, who is confident that Japan’s characteristic style of play will help them return to the pinnacle of the sport. "The players must be open to anything and must learn to play in many different ways so that they can react appropriately to any situation on the pitch,” Takakura explained. “It is they who have to make those decisions during matches, not me as coach. We are trying to find a healthy balance between attack and defence. I want my team to play a brand of football suited to Japanese players. That means solid technique, team spirit and perfect link-up play. These three factors are our most important strengths, and we focused on these virtues even while I was still playing. I’m sure that if we play like this, our team can outperform their rivals."
Takakura’s team have been in top form for much of their journey to the semi-finals in Papua New Guinea, with their 6-0 win over 2014 finalists Nigeria sending a particularly resounding message to the rest of the field. While their euphoria was briefly dampened by a 1-0 defeat at the hands of Spain, another two comfortable victories over Canada (5-0) and Brazil (3-1) mean the Young Nadeshiko are now ready to try and reach their first U-20 Women’s World Cup final.
"Although I’m satisfied with my team’s performances, I think all of the players could still improve further,” their coach said. “We’ve been getting better and better from one game to the next at this tournament so far, so I think we’ll be even stronger in the semi-final. France are a world-class side who are physically, technically and mentally very tough. It’ll be a difficult match, but I’m looking forward to it," Takakura concluded.