Japan’s Golden Girls: U20 World Cup win raises hopes for Tokyo 2020

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Women’s football has come a long way in Japan.

The Under 20’s stunned Spain 3-1 to win the 2018 U20 women’s World Cup in France.

Japan became the only nation to have won every World Cup available in the women’s game.

Land of the rising stars

Currently ranked 6th in the world FIFA pecking order, the future looks bright for these Young Nadeshiko.

The champions of Asia overcame the champions of Europe in Vannes, France, and excitement is growing around these next-gen Japanese stars.

18-year-old Hinata Miyazawa scored a wondergoal against the run of play in the final against a heavily fancied Spanish team.

A strong defensive unit and outstanding displays from goalkeeper Hannah Stambaugh laid the foundations for Japanese glory as they conceded the fewest goals in the entire tournament.

Their meanness in defence was matched by a ruthless streak up front: Japan scored fifteen goals – more than any other team.

Sauri Takarada finished as the tournament top scorer with five goals and her all-round play marked her out as one to watch too.

With goals like this from Takarada, it’s no wonder the Japanese camp is excited about the future:

Historic

The U17 World Cup in 2014, this U20 World Cup 2018, a senior World Cup in 2011, and an Olympic silver medal at London 2012.

The future didn’t always look this bright.

Kate Turner’s Hidden History of Women’s Football in Japan notes that before the sixties the sport was mainly confined to physical education classes and break-time knockabouts for schoolgirls.

Culturally, football simply wasn’t a thing that Japanese ladies played.

Then came the Tokyo 1964 Olympics.

The Games sparked the spread of the sport among women, but soccer had humble beginnings.

When Kobe College Junior High-School students set up a match against Fukuzumi Elementary school in 1967, it marked a trend and the local media took an interest.

Women's football in Japan
The Kobe College team featured on the cover of the 23 December 1966 issue of Asahi Graph.

The younger Fukuzumi team won 1-0 and the media buzz around the women’s football phenomenon helped spread the word.

Suddenly teams were sprouting up all over the country.

The first women’s national team didn’t play a game until 1981 when England and Italy were invited to play in Japan.

It wasn’t pretty.

Thirteen of Japan’s fifteen-player squad were still in school. England scored four while Italy racked up nine goals against the novices.

Different Days

Times change and when legendary coach Norio Sasaki took over the Nadeshiko in 2008, they changed completely.

By 2011 Japan had won the World Cup.

Armed with a wry smile, a sharp turn of phrase, and a vision, Sasaki saw in Dutch total football and Spanish tiki-taka a way to level the playing field.

Building a way of playing on possession and slick short passing, the Japanese frustrated physically bigger European and North American rivals.

“The more you lose the ball, the harder you need to work to win the ball back. Then you waste so much energy.” – Norio Sasaki

This quickfire pass-and-move collective style matched the characteristics of his team perfectly and empowered an entire generation to reach their full potential.

Trailblazers

Aya Miyama was captain, creative force, and understated star of the 2011 World Cup winners, but it was Homare Sawa who picked up the Ballon d’Or in 2012.

Sawa became a national hero when she redirected a corner into the net against the USA with a brilliant backheel flick, many still consider it the greatest women’s World Cup goal ever.

The dramatic late equaliser led to Japan stunning the U.S. on penalties and winning the World Cup.

The team were instant celebrities in a country desperate for some good news in the wake of an earthquake, a tsunami, and the Fukushima nuclear disaster.

It was the type of collective experience that only sporting victory can provide a nation – complete strangers hugging in packed bars before dawn in Tokyo, elated fans spilling, singing, into the streets in Kobe, Kyoto, and Osaka.

After returning home from Germany, the Nadeshiko received the National Honor Award, becoming the first group ever to be honored with the prize.

Sponsorship and commercial backing multiplied, suddenly women could dedicate themselves solely to the game and not worry about balancing a job with playing football for their country.

Their achievement brought many more young women to the game, too.

Women’s League attendances soared and women’s football in Japan finally stepped out of the shadows.

At 33-years-old, Sawa’s words in a Time magazine interview in 2012 sound almost prophetic:

“Someday I’ll retire. And when I do, I hope the younger generation of girls will be able to play football on equal terms with the men.” – Homare Sawa to Time magazine in 2012

Homare Sawa waves goodbye to the game in 2015 at 37 years of age. The midfielder and INAC Kobe Leonessa player won the MVP at the 2011 Women’s World Cup. (Photo by Yuriko Nakao/Getty Images)

Olympic Fabric

The Olympics are interwoven into the fabric of women’s football in Japan.

Since the inspiration of Tokyo 1964, the rise of female football has been an improbable tale of teams consistently defying the odds and exceeding expectations.

Japan came agonisingly close to Olympic gold at London 2012, but Hope Solo and Carli Lloyd led the revenge mission for the USA after their 2011 World Cup final defeat.

The Japanese may have failed to qualify for Rio 2016, but dreams of a first Olympic football gold medal got a big boost with this U20 World Cup win in France.

Tokyo 2020 is less than two years away and victory on home soil, back in the city where it all began, would mean so much to the past, present and future of women’s football in Japan.

The team is currently at the Asian Games and next up is the 2019 World Cup, but this most recent success at U20 level has given them reason to believe that anything is possible for the Nadeshiko.

Even winning gold at Tokyo 2020.

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Author: Ken Browne
Ken Browne is a multimedia journalist for the Olympic Channel.