With over 100 international caps and six seasons of service for women’s soccer titan Olympique Lyonnais, defender Saki Kumagai is already recognized by those in the know as one of the sport’s top players.
Now the rest of the world will have a chance to find out, after the 28-year-old was nominated for BBC Women’s Footballer of the Year 2019 alongside Norway’s Ada Hegerberg, Australia’s Sam Kerr, Denmark’s Pernille Harder, and American Lindsey Horan.
The shortlist for the award, now in its fifth year, was determined with the help of over 50 expert panelists from around the world including media, former players and coaches.
Speaking to The Japan Times ahead of Thursday’s announcement, BBC sports presenter Sarah Mulkerrins hoped that Kumagai’s nomination, the first ever for a Japanese player, along with Kerr’s, who was also shortlisted in 2018, would be a positive step toward giving women’s soccer in Asia the global exposure it has sometimes struggled to achieve.
“Over the last couple years, Kerr has been a force with the goals that she’s scored in the U.S. and in Australia, domestically and internationally. She’s been a breakout star in that regard. But also you have the likes of Kumagai, who’s played for Lyon, arguably the best team in women’s football and a phenomenal outfit,” Mulkerrins said. “What she’s done in terms of contributing to her team’s defensive prowess definitely deserves international recognition.
“It’s a little bit harder to break through into the traditional U.S. and European-dominated media, and hopefully this award can help bring stars from these countries some recognition. Hopefully people will see the clips and realize that actually, Japan are World Cup winners.
“There’s no reason why we shouldn’t all be aware of that team and their dominance and contributions to women’s football . . . and how they’ve brought more technical football to the women’s game and forced other teams to focus on their technical skills and not just strength or physicality.”
Kumagai, a Sapporo native, has been on the international stage since her 2008 debut, and made her mark on soccer history at 20 years old when she scored the game-winning penalty against the U.S. in the 2011 Women’s World Cup final.
The face of that Nadeshiko Japan squad was star striker Homare Sawa, the 2011 FIFA Women’s World Player of the Year who Kumagai and those of her generation looked up to as an idol and inspiration. Now, Mulkerrins believes, it’s Kumagai’s turn to lead by example.
“I think that because of her role with Lyon, her status within that team, she will have gotten a lot of confidence in both her ability and playing around the best players in the world,” Mulkerrins said. “She’ll be a good captain for Japan, because those other players will see and respect her for that. She’ll befriend the younger players and make them feel comfortable, and she has a lightness that will keep the seriousness and the pressure off.”
Nadeshiko Japan will head into France without some of the high expectations the team has shouldered in the past, having slipped as low as No. 9 in FIFA’s world rankings from its all-time high of No. 3 in 2011-13.
Japan’s lopsided 5-2 defeat to the U.S. in the 2015 World Cup final and failure to qualify for the 2016 Rio Olympics, along with the continued dominance of the American ladies and rise of England’s Three Lionesses and Australia’s Matildas, have arguably diluted the team’s place in the public consciousness. But Mulkerrins argues that Group F opponents England and Scotland, as well as Argentina, should take Nadeshiko lightly at their own peril.
“In the U.K., the headline was England and Scotland meeting again after meeting at the (2017 Women’s) Euros. I had to remind people about the fact that they were drawn with Japan . . . and how that’s actually going to be a very tough game,” Mulkerrins said.
“We saw at the SheBelieves Cup that Japan, even missing so many key stars due to injury, is a really tough outfit to break down. They have the youth coming through who are clearly able to slot into this machine. Japan has such a good structure in place, and it’s easy for the team to find replacements for those big names.
“The SheBelieves tournament was a bit of a wake-up call to general fans, telling them how big this Japan game is going to be. But those within the women’s football community are quite confident and excited about what that match might prove. If (England) are going to be contenders, they’re going to have to beat Japan, one of the best teams in the world.”
Voting, which began on Thursday, will conclude on May 2, with the winner to be revealed on May 22.
Opportunities for growth
Having just flown back from the U.S. after covering Tiger Woods’ historic comeback win at the Masters, Mulkerrins expressed frustration with the recently announced scheduling for women’s soccer at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, which will see that competition’s final played at 11 a.m. at New National Stadium.
“I think it’s really unfortunate. 11 a.m. for elite athletes is not the best time to be performing in an Olympic final. That’s tough on their bodies if all of their other games have been (in the evening),” Mulkerrins said. “These are things that do pop up in the women’s game because of the issues around women’s football and the advocacy and decision-making. That’s why you need more women in these roles and more advocates for women’s football and more people to point out these things.”
Mulkerrins, who also cited the controversy over the use of artificial pitches at the 2015 Women’s World Cup in Canada, praised the slate of venues for the upcoming tournament in France and touted Japan and Australia as strong contenders to host the 2023 edition.
“It would be nice to reward either of those two because they have been committed to the women’s game for quite a long time,” she said. “The fact that they have invested in women’s football, created programs and giving it long-term financial backing in terms of developing the women’s game. They’re probably the two favorites, also because they have the infrastructure and the ability to get between locations, accommodation and transport for the teams.”
If current interest in women’s soccer is any indication, the sport could experience tremendous growth between now and 2023. The last year has seen record attendances for women’s club teams across the world, with over 39,000 turning out watch Italy’s Juventus and Fiorentina play at Turin’s Allianz Stadium, 60,000 witnessing Atletico Madrid face Barcelona at Wanda Metropolitano, and 45,000 making their way to Wembley Stadium for 2018’s Women’s F.A. Cup final between Chelsea and Arsenal.
“It’s almost like the cogs are turning in administrators’ heads,” Mulkerrins noted. “People realize that there’s an appetite for it. It could be the case that these are one-offs, or special occasions, but I think the biggest point has been that actually, if you give it proper marketing, proper investment, proper attention and space for those big crowds, (women’s teams) will get (those crowds) and prove that they can attract that sort of attention.
“(Scheduling women’s games at men’s stadiums) encourages the clubs to link up to men’s team, which encourages fans of the men’s team to think about including the women’s football team within the football community. In France they’ve been successful, with the likes of PSG and Lyon, in terms of bringing in fans of the men’s team and encouraging them to support the women’s team. Manchester City also do that quite well.
“In the last few months there’s been a shift of (administrators) realizing ‘well actually, if Atletico can do it, if Juventus can do it, we should look at it a bit more.’ In terms of PR for the clubs it’s win-win.”