As media outlets across the world release their previews for the Olympic women’s soccer tournament, few if any are likely to mention Nadeshiko Japan defender Saori Takarada or midfielder Honoka Hayashi.
That’s just fine with the two former Cerezo Osaka Sakai Ladies teammates, both of whom have used the one-year delay of the Tokyo Games to establish themselves overseas and break into head coach Asako Takakura’s squad.
Boasting a combined 14 senior caps, they are among many new faces who will be looking to steer Nadeshiko to their first medal since London 2012 — the last time Japan’s women competed at the Olympics.
Just two players from that silver-winning team — striker Mana Iwabuchi and center back Saki Kumagai — were chosen for Tokyo, indicative of the generational transition the team has experienced since failing to qualify for the Rio Games. Ten of Takakura’s 22 players boast fewer than 20 international appearances, and only captain Kumagai carries more than 100.
“If you think about (having) six caps, it’s not that many, but when you stand on the pitch none of that matters and you have to focus on your role, you have to play well and contribute to your team,” Hayashi said during an exclusive conversation with The Japan Times from the team’s pre-Games training camp late last month.
“If we get the call it’s time to do our job regardless of our experience, and I think everyone feels the same way.”
The two players, who both played a role in Japan’s 2018 U-20 Women’s World Cup triumph, readily admit that it’s likely neither of them would have participated in the Olympics had the event not been postponed due to the coronavirus.
Hayashi, 23, has benefited from extra luck. She was initially selected as a backup player before the International Olympic Committee allowed both men’s and women’s soccer teams to treat backups as full squad members.
But she doesn’t need to look far for advice, as Takarada’s own Nadeshiko debut came after she was a late replacement call-up for Japan ahead of the 2019 Women’s World Cup.
“It was my first time getting called up to the Nadeshiko camp. I was a little fearless, I had that momentum of wanting to do whatever I wanted,” Takarada said of playing in France two years ago. “In the pre-tournament camp, I was excited to play against (world-class) opponents. I wasn’t thinking about it, I just played.”
The U-20 World Cup in particular was a breakthrough moment for Takarada, who was awarded the Silver Ball and Bronze Boot for her five goals and three assists. The 21-year-old says her interest in playing abroad was stoked by that tournament as well as at France 2019, where she was inspired by the overwhelming talent of the United States.
“At the World Cup in France, experiencing the intensity of the foreign players made me want to test myself overseas,” Takarada said. “I saw how amazing the U.S. women’s team was, and if I had an opportunity I wanted to go to America and play there.”
Takarada found that opportunity at the end of the 2020 season when she signed with the Washington Spirit in the National Women’s Soccer League. Hayashi, seeking to build on her own December 2019 debut for Nadeshiko at the EAFF E-1 Championship, saw a path to improvement in Europe as she joined Sweden’s AIK.
While the two had been key players for Cerezo since its Nadeshiko League side was formed in 2013 as an extension of its girls academy, neither carried ambitions of emulating Cerezo’s J. League players such as Shinji Kagawa, Hiroshi Kiyotake and Yoichiro Kakitani, all of whom saw their stars rise at Cerezo before joining European clubs.
“At the time, I didn’t know much about women’s players overseas. In junior high school I didn’t think about it,” Hayashi said. “I think I had more opportunities to watch J. League games (than women’s teams). My friends in sixth grade were all boys and we’d all get more excited talking about J. League players such as Shinji Kagawa and Kengo Nakamura.
“I had a vague goal of wanting to play for Nadeshiko Japan, but it didn’t seem practical. … My realistic goal was to establish myself in the team and get playing time in the Nadeshiko League.”
For both Takarada and Hayashi, the transition from amateur to professional contracts has given them plenty to adjust to over the last six months — both on and off the pitch.
“(At AIK) we have an equipment manager who prepares our uniforms. At Cerezo we weren’t professionals, so it was kind of amazing the first time I experienced that,” Hayashi said.
“How you spend time outside of training becomes very important, and you have to manage that. You have to think about where to go, what to do. It’s not easy but you have to do it as a professional player.”
In Washington, Takarada has had to acclimate not only to a different language and culture, but also to the United States’ drastically higher level of passion for women’s soccer.
“Compared to Japan, there’s far more enthusiasm about the NWSL. That’s not just a Cerezo thing. It’s an amazing league,” Takarada said. “When you score a goal, seeing everyone’s reaction, the colored smoke in the stands.
“The displays on the video board when they do the player introductions … you get that for Nadeshiko Japan, but not in the Nadeshiko League.”
Takarada admits that communication outside of training remains a struggle. But the youngster’s efforts have not gone unnoticed by Spirit head coach Richie Burke, who effusively praised Takarada in comments to The Japan Times.
“I’ve experienced coming to an entirely different culture as a young player, but I had the added benefit of understanding the language even though the lifestyle was greatly different (and) I can only imagine what Saori has been dealing with during her time at our club,” Burke said.
“Through it all she has won the hearts of the staff and her teammates. She is incredibly humble and always quick to smile — and her two roommates are both fiercely protective of her!”
While the main prize remains a gold medal at Tokyo’s National Stadium on Aug. 6, Nadeshiko Japan will be playing with one more goal in mind — giving women’s soccer a boost ahead of the Sept. 12 opening of the country’s new professional WE League.
Although Japan’s famous victory over the United States at the 2011 Women’s World Cup spurred a temporary burst of interest in the Nadeshiko League, players such as Takarada and Hayashi are well aware that Tokyo 2020 will be an important opportunity to ensure that fans not only start but continue to watch Japan’s top players and clubs.
“I think that if Nadeshiko Japan does well at the Olympics, it will bring attention to the leagues and make fans want to go see the WE League,” Hayashi said. “It’s important to make them think ‘there’s lots of good teams in the WE League, I want to watch.’”
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