For tragic reasons, 2011 is a year Japan and New Zealand will never forget. In March, a massive earthquake off Japan’s Pacific coast brought a devestating tsunami which left about 19,000 people dead or missing, more than half of them in Miyagi Prefecture. Just a few weeks earlier, a powerful earthquake had hit the New Zealand city of Christchurch, killing over 180 people, including 28 Japanese.

Perhaps it is fitting then that the Young Nadeshiko and the Junior Football Ferns — representing two nations still scarred by last year’s natural disasters—will face each other on Wednesday in Miyagi. While the teams are aware of the connection their nations share, both will be focusing only on football once the game kicks, with top spot in Group A, and a quarter-final berth depending on other results, awaiting the winner.

Nevertheless, New Zealand coach Aaron McFarland has embraced the significance of the off-field factors surrounding the match. “Last year, Japan and New Zealand were struck by terrible disasters, so we shared a similar pain. I sensed how significant playing in Miyagi would be even before I got here. I hope we can play well and encourage people in Japan, and especially in Miyagi, which suffered such catastrophic damage in the tsunami, as they continue to rebuild from the disaster,” he told

New Zealand defeated Switzerland 2-1 in their opening game, a result that has them poised to reach the knockout stage of a FIFA tournament for the first time.

“We spent a lot of time preparing for that first game because we wanted a good result,” McFarland said. “After all, the first game can largely dictate whether a team goes through to the next round. We won that game, but we aren’t getting carried away. We’ll keep our feet on the ground and concentrate on the next fixture.”

Tough task against hosts
True to his word, McFarland was watching as Japan comfortably defeated Mexico 4-1 in their opening game, which was also played in Miyagi. Speaking afterwards, the coach was clearly impressed with the Young Nadeshiko’s emphatic performance. “Japan has developed into a real power in women’s football,” he said. “They’re a team from which we can learn so much, both technically and in terms how the team is organised. Many sides are trying to catch up to Japan. Technically, they’re superior to us, so we’ll have to figure out how to deal with that.”

For his part, Japan coach Hiroshi Yoshida has declared that his players are some of the most “technically gifted” in the world. This was evident as they dominated Mexico, even without prolific forwards Mana Iwabuchi and Mai Kyokawa, who are both recovering from injury. McFarland is bracing for another onslaught from Japan, one of the favourites at this tournament.

“I’m sure it’ll be a tough game. We have to prepare well, and stay disciplined. Japan are very well-structured and play at pace,” he said.

Far from being daunted, their Oceania opponents plan to come out with a positive attitude. “We have to stay relaxed but also show desire. Hopefully we can stay compact on defence but be attacking-minded if the chance arises. If we can get a decent amount of possession, I think we’ll have a chance to win,” McFarland said.

While the progress Japan has made in recent years — winning the FIFA Women’s World Cup™ in 2011 and the silver medal at the London Olympic Games this month — has been startling, the Kiwis also have come a long way. McFarland is proud of his team’s development, and believes they will have a big role to play in this tournament.

“We mightn’t have progressed as much as Japan’s senior and U-20 sides have, but we’re getting stronger. As a team, we’re growing more confident. If you look at where we were 10 years ago, we’ve improved immensely. I’m excited about facing the challenge that Japan presents,” he concluded.