Soccer / Women's World Cup | From the Spot

Japan must build foundation for women's game after withdrawing bid

by Dan Orlowitz

Staff writer

The Japan Football Association thought it had found a straightforward path to building long-term momentum for women’s soccer in the country.

But after Monday’s decision to withdraw their candidacy to host the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup, the JFA’s “hop-skip-jump” strategy has suffered two crucial stumbles well before a ball has been kicked.

The road envisioned by JFA President Kozo Tashima and the rest of this team revolved around three milestone events.

First was the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, where Nadeshiko Japan would be considered strong candidates to reach the podium on home soil — despite an underwhelming round of 16 exit at the 2019 World Cup in France.

Next would be the September 2021 launch of a new professional women’s league — officially unveiled as the WE League earlier this month — to replace the semiprofessional Nadeshiko League at the top of the pyramid.

But the linchpin was always supposed to be the 2023 Women’s World Cup, which would have given the WE League a boost in the form of a stronger marketing angle and significantly increased commercial appeal.

The task of lining up these three events was made unexpectedly complicated by the financial impact of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and the postponement of the Tokyo Games to 2021, putting women’s soccer’s two biggest tournaments within a two-year window.

“When I presented our bid to UEFA in early March I had a good feeling about how we were received,” Tashima told a news conference Monday. “But after the Olympics were postponed, negative opinions regarding hosting the sport’s two world championships in the same country in such a short period of time began to spread.”

It was the JFA’s concern over the optics of an overwhelming defeat in Thursday's scheduled vote by the FIFA Council — and its potential knock-on effect on the WE League — that led to Monday’s decision, which came after weeks of debate.

“We discussed staying in until the end and suffering an honorable defeat, but if we’d lost the vote with no support, it would have had an immeasurably negative impact on Japan’s reputation,” said Tashima.

“We know the effect (of not hosting the World Cup) on the WE League won’t be zero, but we decided that withdrawing now, rather than suffer a large defeat in voting on Thursday, would benefit the WE League more.

"This decision will allow us to focus on our priority of making next year’s Tokyo Olympics and the WE League a success.”

Writing for Sponichi on Tuesday morning, former Nadeshiko head coach Norio Sasaki called Japan’s withdrawal “a mature decision made with the long view in mind.”

But what remains to be seen is whether that long view has come at the expense of the blinders that seem to have been attached to Japan’s bid throughout the process.

The bid’s logistics were never in doubt, but the JFA’s conservative ticket sales estimates — especially in the wake of unprecedented demand for the Tokyo Olympics and the stunning success of last year’s Rugby World Cup — were puzzling.

So was the general lack of hype surrounding what, under normal circumstances, should have been a very strong bid. As Australia — and then the trans-Tasman alliance — worked to generate a groundswell of enthusiasm through a public social media campaign, Japan’s lobbying efforts barely got off the ground after COVID-19 forced the cancellation of sporting events across the country from late February.

Nor did the JFA ever seem interested in tying its bid to the zeitgeist of women’s soccer, especially following its transformation into a global rallying cry for women’s empowerment at the 2019 Women’s World Cup.

While the JFA used its English-language press release announcing its bid withdrawal to pat itself on the back for its contributions to women’s soccer — specifically noting its dispatching of coaches to other Asian countries and conducting of grassroots events — it’s not clear that enough people in the association fully grasp how the women’s game has come to embody far more than sport itself, including issues such as LGBTQ rights, equal pay and the Black Lives Matter movement.

Tashima stood by the substance of Japan’s bid on Monday, insisting that the tournament would one day arrive on Japanese shores.

“I led the push for Japan to bid for this World Cup, and (our failure) is my responsibility, but I don’t think our efforts were wasted,” Tashima said. “I think the World Cup should absolutely be held in Japan in the near future. Whether it’s 2027, 2031 or 2035 is something we’ll have to discuss.”

Monday’s face-saving gesture will unify Asian soccer behind the cross-continental bid, and both Australia and New Zealand are more than deserving of being named hosts in recognition of what they have done to push women’s soccer forward.

Hopefully, the disappointing resolution will also serve as a wake-up call for Japanese soccer officials, who are now called upon to demonstrate their dedication to building up the sport at the grassroots and professional levels — without the bonus of a World Cup marketing push — in order to catch up with rapidly expanding competitions in North America and Europe.

For the last decade, the country’s female players have done their part on the pitch, inspiring countless young girls to get involved in the sport.

Now, without the crutch of a home World Cup, it’s time for the JFA and other stakeholders to step up and build the strong foundation women's soccer needs to succeed in Japan.

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