Panda-ing to the masses

Women’s football in Japan is currently doing very well for itself. Success brings fresh challenges though, and it is important that the game tackles them now if it wants to maintain its popularity …

The first time I watched a women’s football match in Japan – ok, probably the first time I ever watched a women’s football match – was in July 2009, when I saw Urawa Ladies take on Beleza at Komaba.

While I was surprised by the level on the pitch and the number of spectators there (nearly 2,000), it was still obviously far-removed from the men’s game.

The amount of interest didn’t seem much higher when I attended a Nadeshiko training session in Tokyo just before the World Cup, with only a handful of journalists present.

Of course, those experiences contrast greatly to the scenes that have been the norm since Homare Sawa et al returned from Germany as World Champions.

The increase in popularity is positive in many respects, and if that can be maintained then the women’s game could go from strength-to-strength. That is not going to be easy though, and I worry that the majority of people will quickly lose interest.

A fellow journalist provided the best analogy of the current situation when describing Sawa as being “like a panda” – everybody wants to take a picture but once they’ve got it their appetite has been sated and they move on to (insert ice-skater/volleyball player/swimmer here).

For me, the recent tour in Japan by Arsenal Ladies was interesting, as it served as a good marker of a) how women’s football in Japan is being viewed from the outside – away from the hype – and b) how many people here still cared.

In the first instance, things were hugely encouraging, with the Arsenal players genuinely excited to be playing against some of the best players in the world and keen to benefit from the experience.

“The most pleasing thing about watching the Japanese team play [at the World Cup],” captain Jayne Ludlow told me the day before their game against INAC Kobe, “was the freedom and the enjoyment they seemed to have playing the games. “Even in high-pressured situations they were smiling – the penalties was a typical example, they didn’t look like they were under pressure at all and they performed brilliantly. So maybe there’s something to learn from that.”

After the game, too, Jennifer Beattie, who scored the equaliser in the 1-1 draw, also spoke about picking things up from the Japanese players.

“The Japanese style of [women’s] football is one of the best in the world,” she said. “Their technique, their first touch, their range of passing is just unbelievable. And that’s probably something that English football and every other style can learn from.”

The game itself was of a high-standard, and in Nahomi Kawasumi, Shinobu Ono, Megumi Takase and Ji So-yun INAC have some hugely exciting attacking talent.

With regards to b), Over 11,000 people were at Kokuritsu for the match, which suggests that there are still plenty of people there for the game and not just the snapshot.

This is exactly how Sawa herself explained things when I spoke to her ahead of the game. “Initially, of course, it can’t be helped; they want to see famous players,” she said. “But I don’t think it’s just that, I think people are genuinely starting to take an interest in the football.”

In England, too, the media is slowly getting behind the game, but Ludlow still thinks there is room for improvement.

“ESPN do show some of the games, but it can always be bigger and better,” she said. “The more profile we get, obviously with funding, [the better], and hopefully in five or 10 years we can go professional.

INAC’s Yukari Kinga thinks the focus should be at the other end of the spectrum as well.

“At the root, at the bottom,” she said after the game with Arsenal. “The youth, in junior high school, middle school. I hope that it can grow more.

“In America, lots of young girls play football. If that could happen in Japan it would naturally make women’s football stronger, it would go in the right direction. So I feel we need to grow more.”

Things certainly look to be on the up, but the key to longevity is not easy to find. Efforts, such as this Arsenal tour, should be made to secure it now though, or people could soon be moving on to the next exhibit.

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December 2011

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