The Resurgence of Japan Women’s National Team: Rising from the Ashes

The Japan women’s national team’s triumph in the 2011 Women’s World Cup was more than just a sporting achievement. It was a symbol of resilience and hope for a nation devastated by the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. With each victory, the team brought more wins and drew in more neutrals to support them. However, despite the success, the Japanese Football Association (JFA) failed to capitalize on this momentum and neglected the long-term development of the women’s football program.

Following their victory in 2011, the Nadeshiko failed to establish themselves as a powerhouse in women’s football. The 2015 World Cup in Canada showcased their apathetic performance, as they seemed content with ball possession but lacked the drive to secure convincing wins. Coach Norio Sasaki, who led the team to victory in 2011, remained in his position without evolving his tactics, and the team suffered a humiliating 5-2 defeat to the United States in the final. The 2019 tournament under new coach Asako Takakura also ended in disappointment, with Japan displaying an unconvincing and scruffy style of play.

Recognizing the need for change, the JFA appointed Futoshi Ikeda, a coach with a successful track record in developing young Japanese footballers, to lead the national team. Initially, Ikeda faced challenges as the team struggled to find an effective system and style of play. However, a switch to a 3-4-3 formation and placing faith in the youth players he had previously coached began to pay off. The SheBelieves Cup earlier this year marked a turning point for Nadeshiko, as they regained their confidence and showcased their potential, earning impressive results against strong opponents.

Beyond the tactical changes and youth development, the success of the Japanese national team stems from the diverse experiences gained by its players both in and outside of Japan. The establishment of the Women Empowerment (WE) League, the only fully professional women’s league in Asia, has contributed to the technical growth and professionalization of players. However, many players have also sought opportunities abroad to further enhance their skills and challenge themselves. This mix of experiences, ranging from playing in Italy, England, Germany, France, and the United States, has added depth and adaptability to the national team.

The current squad showcases the emergence of talented young players who have flourished under the guidance of Ikeda. Midfielder Hinata Miyazawa’s breakout performances, Yui Hasegawa’s vision and creativity, Aoba Fujino’s consistency in attack at just 19 years old, and Saki Kumagai’s composure in defense are a testament to the team’s strength in depth. Mina Tanaka, a regular starter as the striker, also gained valuable experience during her loan spell at Bayer Leverkusen. The team is not only adaptable but also happy with or without possession of the ball, making them a formidable force on the pitch.

A Lack of Support: A Familiar Narrative

Despite their impressive performance in the World Cup, the Japan women’s national team continues to face challenges off the field. Similar to the 2011 triumph, their success this time around is overshadowed by the lack of support from their own federation and home fans. The question of what success could mean for women’s football in Japan remains, as the JFA shows little intention of building for the future.

In conclusion, the resurgence of the Japan women’s national team in the 2023 Women’s World Cup reflects a story of perseverance and growth. Overcoming past failures and neglect, the team has transformed itself into a formidable opponent, dominating the tournament with their technical prowess, adaptability, and a new generation of talented stars. While their success is undeniable, the lack of support from the Japanese Football Association and the absence of a strong fan base remain concerning factors. Perhaps this resurgence will finally serve as a wake-up call for the JFA to invest in the long-term development of women’s football and secure a prosperous future for the sport in Japan.

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