The Young Nadeshiko achieved more success for Japan in the women’s game when they finished third at the recent Under-20 Women’s World Cup. That historic result bodes well for the future, but I’m a bit worried that the players’ talents are being overshadowed by non-footballing factors…
One of the first things I saw upon my return to Japan was a series of posters at Shinjuku station of the Japan Women Under-20 players.
Instead of promotional material for AKB48 or the latest canned coffee product there were instead shots of the Young Nadeshiko, and this took me by surprise.
I’d applied to cover the Under-20 World Cup but hadn’t really expected there to be much interest outside of the football media.
My underestimation of the appeal of young girls giving their all was, of course, a glaring miscalculation.
It was an oversight that I should never really have made when considering a lively conversation I once had with a colleague about the aforementioned AKB48.
I was informed that the male fans of the band weren’t all leering at girls young enough to be their daughters (or even granddaughters), but were merely “supporting” them because they were ganbatteru (doing their best). “It’s the same way we support young footballers and want them to do well,” I was told.
While I didn’t buy that explanation – at the time images of the band in bikinis were plastered all over JR stations and their video involved the girls “doing their best” to pass sweets from mouth-to-mouth – it does go some way to explaining the phenomenal popularity of Hiroshi Yoshida’s side.
Their quarter-final against South Korea, for instance, was attended by over 24,000 fans – more than had been at every single J1 game in the previous round of matches.
As well as the usual contingent of Japan fans – who attend games at any age level, anywhere in the world – there were also many people there who had perhaps not previously had much of an interest in the beautiful game. Football, that is.
Sat right in front of me at Japan’s final group game against Switzerland, for example, was a guy with curly, dyed-blonde hair with a beer in one hand and a glittery, designer diamond watch hanging off of his fake-tanned arm, wearing a replica Nadeshiko shirt with “Kawasumi” on the back.
Now, I don’t know this guy and there is a chance that he’s a lifelong football fan but if I had to bet I wouldn’t think his attraction to the game stretched much beyond the aesthetic aspects of Miss Kawasumi.
That’s not to say there’s fundamentally anything wrong with that, and with the JFA reportedly struggling to break even when hosting women’s matches in Japan it is vital that they get fans through the turnstiles.
Also, I always baulk a little at the snobbery of some people when it comes to just what constitutes being a football fan. People attend games for a variety of reasons, and whether it be to sing the praises of/hurl abuse at the players, analyse tactics, visit different stadiums, enjoy the social aspects of games or because you fancy one of the players is largely irrelevant.
However, I really hope that the ability and achievement of the side in making it to the Best 4 is not overshadowed by external factors.
The structure in place for women’s football in Japan is outstanding, and with the lynchpin of the full national side Homare Sawa soon to be calling it a day there were fears that the Nadeshiko’s glory days were numbered.
On the evidence of the Under-20 side’s displays that couldn’t be further from the truth and, if anything, I can only see the side becoming an even bigger force in the international game.
The capitulation in the first 20 minutes against Germany did take a little gloss off of the competition, but the technical level and assuredness of the players on the ball was quite phenomenal.
There were notable performances all over the park, and while Mina and Yoko Tanaka stood out for me I was most impressed by Kumi Yokoyama.
She sadly only made the bench for the quarter- and semi-finals but displayed a sublime ability on the ball and her passing and vision were breathtaking at times – reminiscent, in fact, of Aya Miyama.
It would be foolish not to capitalise upon the allure of the side, but let’s make sure the main focus remains the fact that things on the pitch are also looking good.