Soccer | From the Spot

JFA's vision for new pro women's league ambitious, but Women's World Cup bid remains pragmatic

by Dan Orlowitz

Staff writer

On Monday, the Nadeshiko League announced it will at last kick off July 18 with the first two rounds being played behind closed doors.

Two days later the professional league that will supplant it at the top of the Japanese women’s soccer pyramid was given a name.

Wednesday’s christening of the WE League was a key step for the new competition, which will open in September 2021 with between 6-10 teams.

The name is catchy enough (so long as it’s pronounced “we” rather than “W.E.”), even if what it stands for — “Women Empowerment League” — sounds like it was ripped from a Powerpoint presentation at a corporate seminar.

The presentation also leaves much to be desired, with a simple black logo emphasizing “.WE” next to a much smaller “League.” According to former Nadeshiko Japan head coach Norio Sasaki, the dot is intended to represent a soccer ball as well as the Hinomaru (rising sun) of the Japanese flag.

“Personally, the name and logo are well-intentioned but it risks slipping into empty gestures and lip-service if the league itself doesn’t actually do what it says: empower women,” Australian soccer writer Samantha Lewis told From the Spot.

In its release, the JFA unveiled a bold vision of having the best women’s soccer, the most active community of women and the most valuable league in the world. Officials have previously declared their intent to set quotas on professional contracts as well as the number of women hired for backroom and executive positions.

“The birth of the WE League will mean that women’s soccer can be established as a profession and the dreams of young girls can be recognized,” said Sasaki, who led Nadeshiko Japan to glory at the 2011 FIFA Women’s World Cup and silver in London 2012, in a statement. “That will form the nucleus around which other roles will be created, and there will be more opportunities for (women) who want to make a living (in soccer).

“I hope everyone involved in the league works together to create a ‘mutual’ positive energy that ripples through society. That’s what I want our league to embody.”

Even before the pandemic that might have been a tall order, but now the JFA will be tested to deliver on its promises without as comfortable a financial footing as it might have previously expected.

“It’s easy to say all the right things when there’s nothing actually at risk yet,” said Lewis,” But what matters is whether they will stick by these empowerment principles in the years ahead once they’re forced to reckon with the financial realities of the women’s game in a post-COVID world.”

Much of the WE League’s early momentum could hinge on outside factors, such as Nadeshiko Japan’s success at the Olympics and the country’s ongoing bid to host the 2023 Women’s World Cup.

“In addition to launching a pro league, Nadeshiko Japan winning a medal at the Tokyo Olympics and Japan earning the right to host the 2023 Women’s World Cup will be very important toward spreading women’s soccer in Japan,” JFA President Kozo Tashima said during Wednesday’s news conference according to according to NHK.

“Lining those up would be the best scenario. Once FIFA’s inspection team releases its report we can calculate our chances of winning the bid.”

That report, scheduled to be released next week, will be a last chance to ascertain the strength of the four remaining bids before the FIFA Council makes its decision on June 25.

While Colombia and Brazil are still in the running, a more plausible scenario is that Japan and the joint Australia-New Zealand bid will emerge as front-runners.

Of those two, the joint bid has gained most of the momentum in the public sphere with its strong social media outreach and endorsements from many leading players and officials in the region.

While FIFA’s inspections took place over the winter before the brunt of the coronavirus pandemic halted sports competitions and international travel around the world, the Oceanian “As One 2023” bid could receive a further boost from how both countries have adeptly managed the crisis.

The pandemic gave Football Federation of Australia a chance to show off its organizing skills when it stepped in on short notice to host an Olympic women’s soccer qualifying group that had to be relocated from Wuhan, China.

The JFA, in part distracted by Tashima’s own battle with COVID-19 and focused its efforts to support financially struggling clubs across the country, has refrained from hearts-and-minds campaigning during the crisis. Only in recent weeks have its social media accounts begun promoting the bid again, posting articles introducing host venues and their history.

It’s an indication that Japan believes its bid can succeed on pragmatism and that its infrastructure and planning capabilities will be enough to outmuscle the genuine emotional message of its rivals to the south, who have made major strides in promoting equality and diversity for the women’s game.

But regardless of whether Japan’s bid is successful, the WE League would do well to study that message as it prepares to open up shop next year, said Lewis.

“The Australia/New Zealand bid taps into the current women’s sport zeitgeist and makes clear why it matters on a wider cultural and political level, almost beyond the boundaries of sport itself,” she said.

“The sport industry has a responsibility to use its power to create positive change, particularly when it comes to equality, diversity, and inclusion. What differentiates ‘As One’ from all the others is that it fully embraces that responsibility and recognizes its role as a key part of our wider social fabric.

“Japan’s WE League could become the next domestic powerhouse competition in Asia if it’s able to tap into the wider cultural surge that women’s sport is currently experiencing.”

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