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NADESHIKO JAPAN

Nadeshiko Japan eyes London Olympic gold

by Jun Hongo

Staff Writer

Japan’s overtime defeat of the United States in the 2011 women’s World Cup soccer finals inspired a nation suffering from the March 11 disaster and ensuing nuclear crisis. This year will see the club dubbed Nadeshiko Japan attempt to repeat their success at the Summer Olympics in London. Following are some questions and answers regarding the women’s national team and its history.

When did women’s soccer begin in Japan?

There were some female soccer players and teams that competed in the 1960s and ’70s, but the Japan Football Association didn’t set up an official women’s organization until 1979, when FIFA asked each member country to do so to promote and develop the sport among women.

According to official records, Japan dispatched its first official women’s team to a tournament in Hong Kong in June 1981. The team lost to Taiwan 0-1.

JFA statistics show that there were about 900,000 registered soccer players in Japan in 2010, of which 25,000 were female. The body is aiming to raise the number to 300,000 by 2015.

How did the sport develop during the bubble economy?

Like pretty much everything else in the country, the late 1980s and the early ’90s proved to be a good time to be a female soccer player.

In 1989, the women’s soccer league was launched with six teams. When the men’s soccer league turned professional in 1993, women’s soccer also gained momentum. Many female players had the opportunity to practice on soccer fields provided by their sponsors, and the league flourished.

How did the national team do early on in international play?

Hopes were high when women’s soccer was added for the first time to the 1996 Summer Olympic Games in Atlanta, but Japan failed to advance in the preliminary stage after losing all three matches against Germany, Brazil and Norway. Things took a turn for the worse when the team failed to qualify for the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney.

A slow economy also forced many corporate sponsors to pull out of the fledgling women’s soccer league.

One example was the breakup of Nikko Shoken Dream Ladies, the team run by securities house Nikko Shoken, after the 1998 season. The team was forced to dissolve after winning the league championship three years in a row.

What was the turning point for Nadeshiko Japan?

As corporate sponsors dried up and the team’s inability to do well in key games took its toll on fans, the women’s league suddenly found itself on the verge of being shut down.

But a single match on April 24, 2004, turned things around for the women, said former JFA General Secretary Takeo Hirata.

“Things weren’t going well when I was appointed as an executive of the JFA in 2002,” Hirata, who teaches at Waseda University, told The Japan Times. “Not only were the female players finding it difficult to secure a decent soccer field to practice on, but many simply didn’t have enough income to continue their careers.”

The JFA first focused on making the sport trendy with the younger generation. This approach included a major project to appeal to new fans — the collaboration with Morning Musume, an all-girl superidol group.

Hirata played a key figure in having the stars practice and compete in futsal matches.

Another key project was to get Nadeshiko games aired on national TV — which Hirata said was an arduous task.

But the JFA succeeded in hosting the qualifying match for the 2004 Summer Olympic Games against North Korea on April 24, 2004. Soccer fever had hit Japan, with the men’s team having just secured a spot in the Olympic Games.

The match was broadcast and gained a successful 16.3 percent viewer rating.

Nahomi Kawasumi, a forward and key member of the 2011 World Cup-winning national team, was a freshman at Nippon Sport Science University at the time. The match inspired her to pursue a career in soccer.

How did the team do in Athens in 2004?

The team made it to the quarterfinals. This would be followed by a semifinals run in Beijing.

In June 2007, the JFA revealed a road map for the women’s soccer team that aimed for a World Cup victory by 2015. That goal was achieved four years earlier.

Why was Japan able to defeat the U.S. on penalty kicks in the 2011 World Cup?

Up until the game on July 18, 2011, Japan had played 24 games against the U.S. and won none.

“There is no scientific explanation to why Japan won that game on that day,” Waseda University’s Hirata said. But he noted that what Japan lacked in physical build, it made up for with emotional strength, technique and stamina. “They were also very motivated after the March 11 disasters. The players were united and were ready to fight hard.”

What are some of the team’s future challenges?

Admission to some women’s matches is still free. While top players in the men’s league sign lucrative deals with their teams, many female stars have to hold second jobs to make ends meet. But thanks to Nadeshiko’s success, corporate sponsors are returning.

In October, Toyota Motor Co. agreed to become an official sponsor of the women’s league. The government also pledged to support the team into the London Olympics and beyond.

Meanwhile, the players themselves are finding their way into the public spotlight through TV commercials and awards. Kawasumi even made the cover of fashion magazine AnAn last year and now has a huge following.

What does ‘Nadeshiko’ mean?

The word comes from both “nadeshiko” (a type of flower) and “yamato-nadeshiko” (a woman who possesses traditional feminine virtue).

It was chosen from a list of potential nicknames in 2004. Some feared it was too soft but others said it would best represent how the team plays — with grace and technique against physically stronger countries.

Nadeshiko was chosen as the buzzword of 2011 by U-can Inc., an educational and career support company.

Who are some of the more celebrated players in the squad’s history?

Homare Sawa, who became the first Asian ever to win FIFA’s Women’s World Player of the Year award earlier this month, is the core of the team as Nadeshiko heads to London.

Sawa holds the women’s record for most goals in international matches (80) and most games played (176).

The striker was athletic from a young age and practiced everything from tennis to baseball to badminton. Even before junior high school she was being scouted by the women’s soccer league.

Kaori Nagamine scored 48 goals in 64 matches for the national team between 1983 and 1996. The ace forward joined Italy’s Serie A women’s soccer league in 1991.

Will Nadeshiko be able to win the gold in London?

The skill level of the elite women’s soccer teams are so closely matched that Nadeshiko will have to focus not only on Brazil, Germany and the United States, but other countries as well. Hirata said one tough opponent will be Great Britain, which has the advantage of hosting the matches. England was the only team to beat Japan at the 2011 World Cup, knocking off Nadeshiko Japan 2-0.

“Teams will study and be prepared when they face Japan this time around,” Hirata said.

“One of the key players will be midfielder Aya Sameshima. It would mean so much to the devastated areas in Tohoku for her to play well on the field, especially since she used to work at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant” as an employee of Tokyo Electric Power Co., he said.

How does the success of the female team impact the men?

Hirata said the men’s team is on the right track, exemplified by players such as CSKA Moscow’s Keisuke Honda and Borussia Dortmund star Shinji Kagawa, both of whom have been successful as central players with top teams overseas.

“There are some things the men can learn from the women — for example, how they properly bow to supporters after the matches,” he said. “The women seem to be better at appealing to the public for their support. These are important factors.”

Where is the World Cup being kept?

Unlike the men’s World Cup, which needs to be returned to FIFA, the women’s cup remains the property of the winning nation for good.

The 2011 World Cup is being displayed at a variety of places, including the Japan Football Museum in Tokyo.

The Weekly FYI appears Tuesdays. Readers are encouraged to send ideas, questions and opinions to hodobu@japantimes.co.jp