Nadeshiko Japan salvaged some pride from their final East Asian Cup match, and the victory may prove vital to the next stage of the team’s development…
WUHAN, China — In sport there is often a fine line between winning and losing, and the effect a victory can have on a struggling or inexperienced side should not be underestimated.
Nadeshiko Japan were just 2 minutes away from finishing without a win at the East Asian Cup, when Kumi Yokoyama was sent through on goal and calmly slotted beyond China goalkeeper Wang Fei to give Norio Sasaki’s side a dramatic last-minute win on Saturday night.
Ami Sugita added gloss to the victory by making it 2-0 in injury time, and Sasaki was delighted his team had been able to avoid the indignity of a last-place finish.
“It has been a long time since I’ve been able to conduct a press conference after a win so I’m incredibly happy,” Sasaki said with a grin.
“I think the strong motivation of the players to win the game forced the ball into the goal, and even though they are still lacking in experience, they showed great perseverance and did not give up.”
The 57-year-old opted to take an experimental team to China, as the competition came so soon after the Women’s World Cup, at which his first-choice squad progressed to the final.
His relatively untested players lost their first match 4-2 to eventual champion North Korea and followed that with a 2-1 loss after leading South Korea, so they were desperate to take all three points against the host in their final outing.
“We’d lost two games and, for us as a team, that left a feeling of disappointment,” Sugita said. “We came into this game with a sense of togetherness and a determination to win. The fact we were able to do that is great.
“Winning is the most important thing. There were many good and bad things in the two games we lost, but there was a nagging feeling of something not being right as we’d not been able to produce results.
“If we hadn’t been able to get even one win in these three games, there would have been a feeling of disappointment, so the fact we were able to win feels like a step forward.”
For Yokoyama, who was brought on as a substitute just five minutes before opening the scoring, there was a particular desire to erase the memory of the previous two losses.
“Less so than what kind of play was required of me, the coach just asked me to go on and get a goal,” she said. “Also, in the previous game [against South Korea] the second goal we conceded was after I made a mistake and they countered, so I entered the pitch wanting to make amends for that.
“The ball from Emi [Nakajima] was really nice, and I felt that all I had to do was convert the chance.”
The fact that she was able to do that changed the complexion of the tournament as a whole for the Nadeshiko, and the win can now be used as a springboard as the team looks ahead to the Olympic qualifiers, which take place in Japan at the start of 2016.
“For us, I think the opportunity to be able to play in these games has been very beneficial, especially as there weren’t many of the regular players here,” Yokoyama said.
“I feel that even the games we lost have given the young players very good experience.”
Her coach was in full agreement, but made it clear that the players now have to make the most of it.
“I think it has been good experience for them, and the fact that in the end we were able to get a victory was a relief and means we can go back to Japan with a little bit of confidence looking ahead to the future,” Sasaki said.
“The most important thing now is that these players take advantage of the three games they’ve played here.”