Nadeshiko Japan’s individual technique and collective brilliance was enough to shock the world 10 years ago at the 2011 Women’s World Cup.
Now, the rest of the world has caught up — leaving Japan struggling to figure out what’s next.
Friday night’s 3-1 defeat to Sweden in the quarterfinals of the Tokyo 2020 women’s soccer tournament was not wholly unexpected. Sweden, which took silver in Rio de Janeiro five years ago, arrived at Saitama Stadium on the back of a flawless group stage, including wins over the reigning world champion United States and podium contender Australia — both of whom needed extra time to reach Monday’s semifinals.
Neither can Japan be criticized for playing poorly against a physically superior opponent. Nadeshiko’s starters overcame an average height disadvantage of 11 centimeters, keeping the ball on the ground and zipping through a neon-yellow forest of Swedish players to break into the attacking third.
Yet despite managing 58% possession, Japan could scrounge up just eight shots from five players compared to Sweden’s 13 from eight — a reminder of the finishing struggles that have plagued head coach Asako Takakura’s side throughout this tournament.
“You can’t score goals with possession alone,” Arsenal striker Mana Iwabuchi said. “In terms of when to make a play on goal, what sort of chance to go for, I’ve thought about this playing overseas but foreign players are really focused on scoring.
“Being afraid of making mistakes is one of our problems, and it’s something we needed to change, but unfortunately we weren’t able to do so.”
Although Magdalena Eriksson’s seventh-minute opener for Sweden seemed inevitable, Mina Tanaka’s 23rd-minute equalizer brought a wave of applause from the decidedly partisan press section, and after the first half ended 1-1 it seemed possible that Japan could go the distance.
But if the players gave their best, it simply wasn’t enough — a reality that left captain Saki Kumagai, one of two Japan players who participated in that magical 2011 campaign, in tears during a postgame news conference.
“We have to think about what we have to do better in order to win. Just being good at soccer isn’t good enough to win these games,” the Bayern Munich defender said. “We have to think about how to make up for our weaknesses; that’s our biggest issue for women’s soccer in Japan.
“I think the best thing we can do right now is to keep pursuing the reasons why we weren’t able to advance in this tournament and use that to advance women’s soccer here.”
While Japan’s youth development has for years been considered one of its strongest assets by the women’s soccer community, it’s clear that the country has fallen behind in terms of leveling up its senior players. Just three of Japan’s starters against Sweden are currently based overseas, with the rest belonging to domestic clubs who until the end of last year competed in the semi-professional Nadeshiko League.
Meanwhile, Europe’s top clubs are beginning to dedicate significant resources to their women’s teams — a trend that could leave Japanese teams, whose men’s sides generate far less revenue, at an even greater disadvantage.
“I think first of all, it’s all about money,” Sweden captain Caroline Seger said of women’s soccer’s upward trend in Europe. “That’s first and foremost, because you can train more, you can train harder, you can have better (facilities) around you to help develop.”
Japan’s new professional WE League will be aiming to provide such advantages to players when its inaugural season kicks off in mid-September, in addition to helping them test themselves against the kind of players that Nadeshiko hopefuls can expect to face at future World Cups and Olympics.
“We will try to bring more talented foreigners so that Japanese players can play against taller, stronger and different types of opponents,” WE League Chairperson Kikuko Okajima told The Japan Times. “We also want to increase the values of our clubs, so they can afford to sign better players from overseas and provide more training for their coaches.”
But the timing of the new competition’s launch has some players uncertain as to where the path to improvement lies. Iwabuchi and midfielder Yui Hasegawa both chose Europe over the WE League during last winter's transfer window, and Nadeshiko players now face the same choice that awaited Japan’s men after the 2010 World Cup: Whether to stay in Japan or seek tougher battles abroad.
“Just as I picked the timing I did to go overseas, I think there’s a lot to be gained for players who do the same,” Iwabuchi said. “Of course, the environment in Japan is improving and it’s great that young girls now have a league they can dream of playing in, but when you think of what we need in order to win, I think each player — including those in the WE League — needs to really think about it and take action.”
As for who will lead Nadeshiko Japan as it looks toward qualifying for the Australia/New Zealand-hosted 2023 Women’s World Cup, it appears that time has run out for Takakura, who was appointed to introduce a generational transition and rebuild the side following its failure to qualify for the 2016 Rio Games.
While the 53-year-old declined to comment on her future Friday, Sports Hochi reported Saturday morning that the Japan Football Association will move to dismiss her in August, with current U-19 women’s head coach Futoshi Ikeda — who led Japan to its 2018 U-20 Women’s World Cup title — a leading candidate to take over the team.
Whoever gets their turn in the hot seat will inherit a promising roster of players, but also a challenging task as Japan struggles for ways to reignite grassroots interest in women’s soccer that failed to reach critical mass in the wake of Nadeshiko’s 2011 world championship and the silver medal that followed at the 2012 London Games.
“To put it simply, they have 1.6 million women’s soccer players in the United States, in Germany about a million, and in Japan we’re looking at about 50,000,” Takakura said.
“The WE League will start in the fall, and we weren’t able to show kids that winning a medal is possible," she added. "Now they will be able to see what’s possible in the WE League, and I hope that will inspire kids to start playing and enable them to continue playing."
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