Winning the World Cup was a sensational triumph for Nadeshiko Japan, although it has served to add pressure in the two years since…
There is a moment from a few minutes before Nadeshiko Japan won the World Cup in 2011 which has always stuck in my mind.
It was as Norio Sasaki addressed his players before the penalty shoot-out, a huge grin fixed on his face and a look almost of disbelief that they were in with a chance of becoming world champions.
Previous form suggested he was quite right to be pinching himself – the side had won just three of their 16 games at World Cup finals prior to 2011 – and despite being in terrific form throughout the competition in Germany the USA were still huge favourites, having beaten Japan 3-0 and 4-0 in their previous two encounters at World Cup finals.
Everyone knows what happened in Frankfurt, and while the same group of players followed that triumph with another terrific showing to take silver at the London Olympics 12 months later that high has not been recreated since.
Most recently it was the East Asian Cup they failed to get their hands on, and a couple of weeks after that competition I headed to Chelsea’s training ground for a chat with their new striker Yuki Ogimi.
“When we won the World Cup it was lucky,” she confessed. “Many small good pieces of luck combined so we were able to win. It was unexpected. Really unexpected. After that the fact that we haven’t recorded good results has proven that much.
“We don’t yet have the ability to keep winning, to beat any kind of opponent, so the players also share a sense of concern about the fact that we are not producing good results.”
Let’s not get carried away, the women’s game in Japan is in an incredibly good health compared to many other countries, and the youth development and organization of the game – as with the men’s – is world class.
The difficulty now, however, is dealing with the raised expectations of that surprise triumph, and waiting for the popularity of the game to level out.
“Women’s football in Japan was given a boost by the World Cup – it was a boom,” Ogimi explained. “The situation now is that we don’t know how long it will stay popular. In Germany there is already a culture of football, there is stability whether the team produces results or not.”
That must be difficult for the coach and players – who, let’s be honest, were essentially unknown prior to July, 2011 – to deal with, and having been used to playing in front of a few hundred fans it must take some getting used to to have tens of thousands now expecting victory in every game.
The best way to improve results is, of course, by focusing as much as possible on events on rather than off the pitch, and Ogimi seems fully aware of that.
“I don’t play football purely in order to [win things],” she said, when asked if she was more proud of winning the Champions League with Potsdam or World Cup with Japan. “Of course, [it’s good] for the team to take a big title – the Champions League or the World Cup with the national team – but I can’t really weigh the importance of either. For me the most important thing is to improve every day at training, every day in matches, and through that process I wish to able to win titles. That’s it.”
Her recent transfer to Chelsea Ladies will undoubtedly help in that respect. The women train at the same facilities as the men’s side, and although they don’t yet have the same record of success as Frank Lampard and co. they are aiming to improve, with Ogimi’s signing a statement of intent.
“This club is not yet fully professional and it’s the kind of club which has to aim to improve,” the 26-year-old said. “We have to work hard in training and be strict with ourselves. Within that I have to have a positive influence on the younger players in the team, with regards to my attitude towards training and those kind of things.”
A return to more a more grounded level of football may also help her to help the national team as well.