SAKAI, OSAKA PREF. - Since lifting the 2011 Women’s World Cup, Japan reached the Olympic final the following year, won the 2014 Women’s Asian Cup and returned to the World Cup final last summer in Canada.
But have the Nadeshiko finally run out of steam?
Friday’s 2-1 defeat to China has left Japan fifth, on just a single point from three games as tournament host, in the six-team group of the Rio de Janeiro Olympic qualifiers.
In order for Japan to qualify — only the top two go through — it must win its remaining two games against Vietnam and North Korea and pray that it can finish ahead of second-place China on goal difference.
If China picks up even a point on Monday against South Korea, ahead of Japan’s game against Vietnam, Norio Sasaki’s side will be watching the Rio Games on TV.
Sasaki, who is almost certain to step down if Japan doesn’t qualify, said there were signs at last year’s World Cup of an imminent struggle for his team.
“We’ve had a difficult time scoring. It’s not only today,” Sasaki said after the China game. “We haven’t been able to score more than once in any given match recently. Luck certainly plays a part, but we had a difficult time coming up with goals even at the World Cup in Canada.
“So the problem runs deep, and it’s something that needs to be addressed for the future of the Nadeshiko.”
In the process of chasing one result after another — and largely with success — Japan sacrificed windows of opportunity to bring up and season the younger players.
The makeup of the current squad is virtually the same as it was for the 2012 London Olympic qualifiers, and while Sasaki did attempt to overhaul his team from time to time, many of them simply didn’t make the grade.
The ones who have made the cut remain inexperienced on the big stage as Sasaki, under internal and external pressure to keep the Nadeshiko juggernaut going, usually opted to go with his tried and trusted players.
Forward Yuki Ogimi said some of the troops clearly don’t understand what it takes to win titles, but adds that it’s not their fault.
“The results have been there for us up until now,” Ogimi said on Saturday following morning recovery work. “Since 2011, winning has become the norm and always been expected of us. But it wasn’t like that before 2011, and some of the players in the squad don’t know about those days firsthand.
“Everyone here knows the demands of having to win now, but some of us don’t know how tough it was for the team to get to this level. They don’t know what it takes to claw your way to the top, but it’s hard for them to understand because they haven’t experienced it.”
The fixtures for this competition — five games in nine days — certainly have not helped Japan, which presses hard and relies on constant ball movement. Almost all the teams here have questioned the sanity behind the scheduling.
Ogimi said all Japan can now do is win its next two games and let the rest take care of itself. Where the Nadeshiko head beyond this tournament is a matter for another time and place, the Frankfurt forward said.
“All we can do is try and make the most of whatever opportunity we have, as small as it may be. After we go all in for these two games, then I think we’ll be able to map out the future so our focus has to be on that now,” she said.
“We’ve hit rock bottom and the odds are against us now, but we need to see this as a test, an opportunity for us to grow as a team.”