• Reuters, AFP-Jiji, Staff report

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Japan’s women’s team has withdrawn from next month’s SheBelieves Cup in Orlando, Florida, because of the current status of the COVID-19 pandemic in their country, U.S. Soccer said on Thursday.

The decision by Nadeshiko Japan, currently 10th FIFA women’s world rankings, comes after the death toll from the novel coronavirus in Japan topped 5,000 over the weekend. A large part of the country is under a state of emergency following a surge in COVID-19 cases just six months before Tokyo is due to stage the Olympic games.

“We reached this decision after looking at the state of infections and related information from a comprehensive point of view,” Japan Football Association Women’s Committee Director Junko Imai said in a statement. “I was looking forward to the tournament as much as any of our players, staff and fans were, but I have to balance our preparations for the Olympics with the need to keep everyone associated with the team safe.”

Japan will be replaced by Argentina in the Feb. 18-24 round-robin tournament featuring the top-ranked United States, Canada and Brazil, U.S. Soccer said in a news release.

Argentina will slot into Japan’s schedule and will kick off the tournament on Feb. 18 against Brazil.

“We are losing a valuable opportunity for match experience, but every team in the world is in a difficult situation,” Nadeshiko Japan head coach Asako Takakura said. “Whatever happens, we have to do the best we can with the conditions we’re given and we are preparing fully for the Tokyo Olympics.”

Florida has been one of the worst-hit U.S. states during the pandemic, but has continued to host high-profile sporting events, including the finale to last year’s NBA season and Major League’s Soccer’s restart tournament.

According to U.S. Soccer, teams competing in the SheBelieves Cup will operate inside highly controlled environments at the host hotel when they arrive in Orlando.

Everyone will also be tested for COVID-19 before traveling, upon arrival and every two days thereafter. Teams will also not begin full-team training until the results of all arrival tests are confirmed.

All matches will be conducted with limited attendance.

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