In 2019, JEF United Chiba forward Ami Otaki launched Nadecare, an organization intended to support women’s soccer players in achieving their career goals and raise the sport’s profile in a country that just eight years previously was No. 1 in the world.
Now the group has a potentially strong ally in the WE League, which has put “women’s empowerment” right in its name and set out an ambitious vision for professional women’s soccer in Japan.
WE League Chair Kikuko Okajima has emphasized a need to facilitate a greater range of career opportunities for players — a vision shared by Otaki, who since her professional debut in 2012 has hopped between top-division clubs in France and Japan.
“Even if you put everything into your career as a player, eventually you will retire,” Otaki told From the Spot during an online interview last month. “In that sense, thinking about how to maximize your career and your time as a player are connected.
“It’s important to think about what your post-player ambitions are while you’re still playing, and there isn’t much support available for players to accomplish that.”
While Otaki agrees that professionalization will allow players to dedicate themselves to their performance on the pitch, her experience playing for Paris FC in 2017 — which followed her completion of the FIFA Master postgraduate sports executive program — has shaped her stance that women should be able to play soccer without sacrificing their ambitions for higher education or a career.
“Paris had a ‘double program’ set up where someone could play and do something they like at the same time, such as work or study at university,” Otaki said. “It’s nice for players to have a lot of options. I think it’d be nice for players to have the option to play and then work or study if they want to.”
The creation of a similar path in the WE League would represent a major shift from the status quo of the semi-professional Nadeshiko League, where most players have been signed to amateur contracts and employed by their club’s sponsors — with many remaining at the same company after retiring.
“Players always had some sort of option for work after retiring so it hadn’t been seen as something that required support, but as pros they’re going to need career support once they retire,” Otaki said. “I think the WE League enabling athletes to have fulfilling careers will raise the value of women’s soccer, and for sports as a whole it will present a new model.
“It’s important for players to be able to focus on playing soccer, and it’s also important for female players to be given the chance to plan for their careers and I hope the WE League can become that.”
Otaki plans for Nadecare, which boasts a pair of well-known Nadeshiko Japan defenders in Saki Kumagai and Yukari Kinga on its board of directors, to be an organization that WE League players can rely on when considering their long-term goals off the pitch.
“When players want to consider their career or pursue other interests, we want them to think of Nadecare. Right now if you want to do something, you don’t know who to talk to or where to go to discuss it,” Otaki said. “Once the league takes shape there will be a player’s association, and we’ll have a role in that.
“We’re already in talks with the league and I hope we can make that vision a reality. We have less than a year before the league opens so we want to talk to players and become reliable for them. I think we share a lot of our vision with the league, but what’s more important than our vision is what the players think about us. In that sense, we still have more to do.”
Lessons from 2011
The 31-year-old Otaki’s three caps for Japan came in 2012 and 2013 — soon after the country’s penalty shootout triumph against the United States in the memorable 2011 Women’s World Cup final in Frankfurt, Germany.
But while Japan’s first senior-level world championship ignited a brief wave of interest in the Nadeshiko League, crowds soon petered out again. Rather than the result of long-term development efforts, Otaki describes the 2011 title as lightning in a bottle — achieved shortly before European nations started seriously investing in their women’s teams and the level of play rose dramatically.
“At the time women’s soccer wasn’t getting that much attention globally — that didn’t come until 2015 or 2019,” Otaki said. “I don’t think anyone expected Japan would win, including the Japan Football Association. It wasn’t like we had done our best to really build up women’s soccer and then we won it. It was sudden, and after that we didn’t have the know-how (to sustain our progress).
“Now there are more people involved in the women’s game, but at the time there were a lot of people who wanted to be involved with men’s clubs and they ended up at women’s clubs. They weren’t necessarily that passionate about women’s soccer. If we had that passion we might have done something.”
Otaki believes that the ability of the WE League’s seven J. League-affiliated clubs to avoid relying on sponsorships and funding generated by the men’s side of the organization will be important to the league’s long-term success.
“Until now we really haven’t been able to escape that reliance on the men’s team. It’s important for clubs to figure out how to create value with their women’s team,” Otaki said. “If we don’t break away from the men’s teams and find our own sponsors (and revenue sources), we’ll still be considered ‘baggage’ for the clubs and the value of the league will go down.
“We’re going to have influence and attention as a new league, and we have to create value off the pitch.”
Key to creating that value will be the ability of players to organically promote the league. That’s a potential roadblock in Japan where athletes are often averse to using social media, unlike their overseas counterparts.
Otaki, who praised former Nadeshiko star and current Racing Louisville striker Yuki Nagasato for her active online presence, believes that getting WE League players to show similar levels of engagement will take more time.
“It’s really difficult because of the cultural differences. There’s incredible resistance to posting on social media, myself included,” Otaki said. “It seems like a waste not to do it, but you worry about overdoing it.
“If the clubs don’t work with the players, it will be difficult for the players to do it instinctively … but it’s one thing we can do to raise our value and the value of women’s soccer. First the club and the league need to feature the players, and you have to work toward the players expressing themselves.”
Overall, Otaki believes that there’s plenty to be optimistic about when it comes to the WE League and the power now entrusted to her and her fellow players.
“I think the players feel more of a responsibility, they know that if they become pro and do what they have to do it will be a good league,” Otaki said. “We can help the league succeed.”
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