OSAKA – All good things come to an end, as it will Wednesday for this Nadeshiko Japan team, which has spectacularly failed to qualify for the Olympics, just eight months removed from reaching its second consecutive Women’s World Cup final.
It’s being whispered that everyone from coach Norio Sasaki to captain and three-time women’s Asian player of the year Aya Miyama to defender Yukari Kinga are on their way out after Wednesday’s game against North Korea, the last of the qualifying competition for Rio de Janeiro.
While none would definitively speak about their future on Tuesday after their final training session of the qualifying competition, it appears the nucleus that helped build Nadeshiko’s golden era and made Japan a superpower in the women’s game may really pass on the torch.
“As long as you’re in this business, that time will come sooner or later,” Sasaki said, when asked if the North Korea game would be his last as Japan manager. “Regardless (of my situation), we have to go out and give it 100 percent tomorrow.”
Said the 31-year-old Miyama, “We still have one game left for which I have a responsibility as captain. What I do beyond that is not for me to say right now.”
It all began for Sasaki’s side with Japan’s triumph in the 2011 World Cup, as the nation sought inspiration amid desperation from the March 11 earthquake and tsunami.
The Nadeshiko kept rolling, winning a silver medal at the 2012 London Olympics, capturing Japan’s first continental title at the 2014 Women’s Asian Cup and returning to the World Cup final last year in Canada.
Even with the retirement of legendary captain Homare Sawa at the end of last season, insiders and outsiders were thinking Olympic gold, finally, in Rio for this squad.
Those people couldn’t have been more wrong.
“In the first game, we couldn’t move the ball well enough against their pressing and I think there were some nerves as well,” Sasaki said, looking back on last week’s 3-1 defeat to Australia, which qualified out of Asia along with China.
“Against South Korea, we had the ball movement but couldn’t come up with the result. So in the China game, we were in a position where we had to win and being objective, we went long but they ended up scoring first.
“It was one thing after another and we just couldn’t get into any kind of flow. The players never deviated from the plan; there were circumstances in the games that forced us into playing a certain way.”
The reality is, the Japanese players were coming out of a preseason with no warm-up games under their belt and were not in tip-top shape, which they needed to be in to execute their Barcelona-esque style and to endure the punishing schedule of five matches in nine days.
And with Sawa having retired, there was a leadership vacuum that could not be filled even by Miyama and new No. 10 Yuki Ogimi, despite their quality.
Yet Sasaki, who has given Japan one of the best runs in the history of the women’s world game, has not made any excuses, pointing the finger only at himself.
“You have to always be winning with the national team — otherwise you guys will keep writing all kinds of stuff about us,” he said jokingly.
“When I started this job, we played a tough, tough game against DPRK (North Korea) and came from behind to win 2-1. That was my beginning. They’re a strong side and we’ve always learned from them. Tomorrow will be no different; we have to find the strength to match their resilience.”
The future hangs in a balance for Sasaki and his once-golden girls, but if this it for the Nadeshiko players who helped put women’s soccer on the map of Japanese sport, they at least want the last hurrah on Wednesday.
“Counting the days when he was an assistant, he’s someone I’ve worked with for nine years and helped me experience a lot of things,” Ogimi said of Sasaki. “I know people are saying this is it, but I hope tomorrow will be no different than the way things have been in the past.”
Added defender Azusa Iwashimizu, “Some of us have played with each other for a long time and it could be our last game together. I hope we can end it with a smile on our faces.”