Tuesday, June 3, 2008

In Japan, the women's game goes from strength to strength

In Japan, the women's game goes from strength to strength.
China may be the dominant Asian force in women's football, but having secured their place in the semi-finals of the AFC Women's Asian Cup currently taking place in Vietnam, that is something that Japan are hoping to change.

Coach Norio Sasaki's side could hardly have booked their semi-final place in more dramatic circumstances, needing to beat Australia by two clear goals in their final group game at Thong Nat Stadium in Ho Chi Minh City on June 2.

Early strikes from Kozue Ando, Yuki Nagasato and Aya Miyama eased Japanese nerves, and a late Clare Polkinghorne effort proved academic as both nations progressed to the last four of the tournament.

Japan's success comes on the back of their recent East Asian Championship win in China, where they lifted the title following a 3-0 thrashing of the hosts at Yongchuan Stadium in Chongqing. Coach Sasaki credited his country's first ever major women's title to the strength of the domestic Nadeshiko League, where players ply their trade in an increasingly professional environment.

Comprised of an eight-team First Division and a nine-team Second Division, the bulk of the current Japan squad contains players from the two dominant forces in Japanese women's football, three-time reigning champions NTV Beleza and Saitama outfit Urawa Reds Ladies.

Tokyo Verdy affiliate NTV Beleza are sponsored by Nippon TV and led by stars Homare Sawa - Japan's most capped player and the Most Valuable Player at the recent East Asian Championships, and striker Yuki Nagasato - a mainstay of the national team despite not yet having celebrated her 21st birthday.

Urawa Reds Ladies contributed four players to Japan's AFC Women's Asian Cup squad, including veteran goalkeeper Nozomi Yamago and defender Kozue Ando, and both will be looking to wrest the domestic Nadeshiko League trophy away from the dominant NTV Beleza.

With the competition currently on hiatus given the national team's quest for continental glory, Urawa Reds Ladies lead the early standings ahead of their main rivals NTV Beleza. They won't have things all their own way, however, with the Okayama Yunogo Belles and the Kobe-based INAC Leonessa also looking to put up a stern challenge in this season's competition.

The Nadeshiko League provides an opportunity for players like Saki Kumagai and Michi Goto - both students at Tokiwagi Gakuen High School who were called up for Japan's AFC Women's Asian Cup campaign, to continue training and playing football at an elite level after their school days have ended.

While the women's game in Japan hasn't quite reached the level of its male counterpart the J. League, attendances continue to rise - with crowds in excess of 2,000 turning out to watch the stars of NTV Beleza and Urawa Reds Ladies do battle, while teams such as the Fukushima-based TEPCO Mareeze and Tasaki Perule FC continue to hold their own, with funding channelled in from the likes of the league's major sponsor Plenus. Indeed the competition looks set to return to the halycon days of the mid-nineties, when the league achieved national prominence before an economic bust saw a sharp downturn in the fortunes of women's football in Japan.

Whether Japan can beat arch-rivals China for a place in the final of the AFC Asian Women's Cup remains to be seen. Japan's players will at least have a vibrant domestic league to return home to, however, as the women's game in Japan continues to go from strength to strength.

Copyright © Michael Tuckerman & Soccerphile.com

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1 comment:

BarcaNY said...

"sings" Anything guys can do girls can do betterrrrr!!" ok, ok...I'll stop before I start anything. =) It is honestly refreshing to get a look at Football:Women's Addition. Though it may not be as highly praised everywhere, I'm in a way sure it gets more praise than here with little media coverage of Football here overall.
Maybe China does still rein over most others in Women's Football though everyone has a high and low at some point. Derby County were promoted(high) then relegated(low).....maybe that's not legitimate enough? Well, we have all witnessed combats that seemed unlikely in a match or last minute goals to win a major game. As long as the Beautiful game thrives on, Japan will get their chance to truly prove China isn't always the ones to trail behind.