Japan may have started the competition a little tentatively and struggled to find their best form in the group stage, but watching the Nadeshiko’s controlled victory over Holland in the Round of 16 there was a real sense of a team clicking into gear.
Mizuho Sakaguchi’s sensational goal was obviously the clearest example of a side in tune, but Norio Sasaki’s women looked assured throughout. It seemed as if the experience at Germany 2011 was starting to come back to the 10 starters who already have winners’ medals to their names, and the influence the success of four years ago could have as the tournament nears its conclusion shouldn’t be underestimated.
Sasaki’s decision to name 17 of the players from last time out divided opinion, with some worrying that the country isn’t developing enough new talent. Indeed, the three players who began the game against the Netherlands and didn’t start in the 2011 final in Frankfurt (Saori Ariyoshi, Rumi Utsugi, and Yuki Ogimi) are all over 26, and just four of the 2015 squad are aged 24 or under.
The next stage of the side’s development once mainstays Azusa Iwashimizu, Homare Sawa, and Aya Miyama decide to hang up their boots is a slight cause for concern, but sometimes these things can be overstated. Teams – especially in international football – evolve steadily over time, not with sweeping changes, and, Sawa apart, all of the 23 in Canada could feasibly still be involved at the next World Cup too.
Rather than worrying about the future the key for now is to focus on the present, and with four wins from four and a not-as-tricky-as-it-could-be route to the final ahead of them things are looking positive for Japan.
In fact, it is not just the Nadeshiko who are flying the flag for Asia, and after the men’s miserable showing in Brazil last year (12 games, no wins) the women of the AFC are doing the continent proud with three representatives in the quarter-finals.
China – a heavyweight of the female game in the early days of the World Cup, when they made the semi-final in 1995 and final in 1999 – have surpassed expectations and take on the USA (who beat them on penalties to lift the trophy 16 years ago), while Japan’s opponents Australia progressed from the tournament’s toughest group with USA, Sweden, and Nigeria, and then proceeded to knock out Brazil in the second round.
That means at least one Asian side will be in the semi-finals for the second tournament in a row, and as female football as a whole gradually gains more recognition that can only be a positive thing for the development of the sport in the region.
Continued improvement will be crucial if Asia wants to stay involved in the higher echelons of the women’s game, as there are signs that some of the more ‘traditional’ football countries are starting to shake off their reservations about the sport and realize that unfavourable comparisons with the men’s game are futile.
In England, for instance, every game is being broadcast live on one of the BBC’s sub-channels, and the mainstream media is not only starting to give the tournament serious coverage, but to also openly question those who still harbour antiquated views on women’s football.
“It is as if some men feel threatened by it, as though women are trying to claim something for themselves that they do not deserve,” Oliver Holt wrote in the Daily Mail. “It’s an odd, curmudgeonly and slightly sinister instinct when there’s so much to admire about its rise.”
He went on to point out that how the female game matches up against the men’s is an entirely irrelevant debate.
“Sport is about the struggle. It’s about the contest. It’s about people competing against each other in different categories and being the best they can be.”
These things are undoubtedly cyclical, and England’s progression to a third successive quarter-finals has created more of a buzz around the game, and that interest should in turn further aid the sport’s continued development.
Things, of course, are far from equal, and while there are plenty of inequalities women in football still have to deal with – whether they be with regards to pitches, pay, or PlayStation – the fact that they are being discussed at all is a positive sign.
A good example of the improving image of the women’s game came in a conversation with a Japanese fan after his country’s win over the Dutch. We were discussing Ayumi Kaihori’s error for Holland’s late goal, and he offered the opinion that Kaihori lacked the requisite concentration to be between the posts and that he felt Erina Yamane was a safer pair of hands.
No clichés about women not being able to play in goal, just comment on the only thing female footballers should be judged on – their ability to play football.
There is still a long way to go but steps are being taken in the right direction, and Asian countries are among those leading the way.