More female soccer players needed

Nadeshiko Japan finished second in the Women’s World Cup held in Canada despite its lopsided 5-2 defeat to the United States in the final last Sunday. After capturing the championship four years earlier, the national women’s team won the silver medal in the 2012 Olympics in London. The fact that the team advanced to three major finals since 2011 (all against the U.S.) is testament to its ability and fortitude.

The team’s achievements are a ray of hope for the future of women’s soccer in Japan and provide stirring inspiration for girls playing soccer in elementary and junior high school. It will now be all the more important for sports authorities to broaden the base of women’s soccer in Japan by increasing the number of players and capable coaches, especially at the junior high school level, so that the Nadeshiko team’s spirit and ability will be handed down to future generations.

In the 2011 World Cup, Homare Sawa performed brilliantly. She was chosen by FIFA as the most valuable player for the tournament. This year, team captain Aya Miyama not only demonstrated strong leadership but also shone with her effective movements to create scoring chances.

Miyama tried her best to keep the team’s morale high and the members united in their quest for the championship. In the semifinal, after scoring a goal on a penalty kick, she dashed to the bench and hugged her teammates there, sending a message that all the players must unite to put up a good fight. The unity and harmony of the team members were evident from the expressions on the players’ faces.

Japan’s national team players may not quite be the match of their opponents in terms of physical strength. But they had the skill to beat back the attacks that competing teams mounted in part on the strength of their physical advantage. Two or three Japanese players would surround the opposing player who was controlling the ball and nip in the bud their opponents’ scoring challenges.

The Japanese players avoided making straight dashes because they could not expect to overwhelm the players of the other team with direct clashes. Instead, they passed the ball among themselves to set up in front of the goal and create scoring chances. Japanese players knew what they could and what they could not do, and battled in a logical way.

If such ways of competing are handed down to future-generation players, Japanese teams will maintain this high level of skill as the players change over the coming years. To make this happen, increasing the number of female players will be necessary. The estimated number of Japanese girls and women playing soccer is only around 30,000 — far fewer than the roughly 1.6 million currently active in the United States.

Due to the declining number of schoolchildren amid the low birthrate, many girls play together with boys in various sports in elementary school. However, this becomes impossible when they advance to junior high school as the gap in physical strength between the genders grows wider, and unlike other sports such as volleyball, basketball or table tennis, there are not enough girls’ soccer clubs in junior highs to accommodate aspiring female players so girls who could turn into talented players are forced instead to abandon the sport.

Support for women’s soccer as a competitive sport also remains unstable. The Nadeshiko team’s surprise victory in the World Cup four years ago cheered up a nation reeling from the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami just four months earlier and roused the public’s interest in women’s soccer. However, the number of sponsors and spectators at domestic league matches, which shot up immediately after the 2011 World Cup triumph, has sharply declined.

One crucial element in beefing up the player population will be for the sport to have a sufficient number of capable coaches. The Japan Football Association is aware of this challenge but have yet to come up with an effective solution. It will be particularly important for the association to nurture coaches who can train players at the junior high school level. While the gender of coaches matters less than their ability, women can be more effective role models for girls and their involvement in the sport as coaches should be encouraged.

Effective leadership and persistent efforts are key to improving the nation’s ability to produce female players who can consistently compete successfully at the highest levels of international soccer competition.

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