25
Jun
21

Kicking on

With the Tokyo Olympics and WE League both on the horizon 2021 could be a big year for women’s football in Japan, and the former could play a big part in creating enthusiasm for the latter… (日本語版)

As the launch of the WE League draws ever closer, I ventured out to Saitama last weekend to take in the friendly match between last year’s Nadeshiko League Division One champions Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Urawa Reds Ladies and JEF United Ichihara Chiba Ladies.

The game at a drizzly, grey, and unseasonably chilly Komaba Stadium was far more enjoyable than typing out the team names (here’s hoping they can be shortened in due course), with both sides keeping the ball well, moving it about quickly, and always looking to play positively – which was even more refreshing having woken up at 4am to endure England’s overly-cautious contest against Scotland at the Euros a few hours earlier.

A peach of a strike by Urawa’s Yu Endo was sandwiched between a couple of sensational Haruka Osawa goals (Exhibit A; Exhibit B) to leave the hosts trailing 2-1 at half-time, but Mayu Sasaki levelled things up in the 56th minute to ensure the game ended all square.

Despite the rain and the fact that Urawa were without their quartet of Olympic players Sakiko Ikeda, Moeka Minami, Yuzuho Shiokoshi, and Yuika Sugasawa or that JEF were minus either of their recent foreign signings Alexandra Chidiac or Quinley Quezada, a decent turnout of 977 had also braved the conditions for the encounter, demonstrating that there are solid foundations to build upon ahead of the launch of Japan’s first professional women’s football league in September.

JEF manager Shinji Sarusawa was pleased enough with his team’s showing as well, feeling it boded well for the side that finished mid-table in the Nadeshiko League top flight last year as they ramp up their preparations for the start of the WE League.

“Last year Urawa was the toughest team we faced,” he said. “We conceded two goals, but I think we can take a lot of confidence from the game. In pre-season matches some things don’t go as expected, but I think the fact we were able to battle so well here is very big for Chiba Ladies.”

Indeed, while there is still something of a gap between the three leading sides and the rest in the top flight of the women’s game in Japan – although 16 of the 22-woman squad (including back-ups) for Tokyo 2020 play domestically, all but one of them – back-up goalkeeper Chika Hirao of Albirex Niigata Ladies – are at Urawa, INAC Kobe Leonessa, or NTV Tokyo Verdy Beleza – the pre-season matches so far have on the whole been closely contested encounters, with only a handful producing landslide victories.

The fact that teams are at such different stages of development is a key hurdle for the women’s game to overcome globally – internationally as well as domestically, as we have seen with Nadeshiko Japan’s easy friendly wins this year – but if federations and leagues continue to tackle the key issues in front of them then the playing field should level out in time.

With professional leagues in Europe steadily finding their feet and increasingly attracting players from around the world, for instance, introducing a similar competition in Japan was vital for the game here to keep pace. Clubs being required to have at least five players on fully professional A contracts and 10 on professional B or C contracts (with a minimum salary of 2.7 million yen), as well as needing to have short-term plans in place to introduce U-18, U-15, and U-12 teams in the coming years are solid policies that should lead to long-term improvement.

“It will be the first professional league [in Japan], and so we have to make sure as many people as possible see the games,” Urawa’s first goalscorer Endo said of her feelings looking ahead to the WE League’s launch. “That was the case in the Nadeshiko League as well, but I feel there will be a greater sense of responsibility on games now, and think the team not only has to win but has to place an importance on doing so in a way that will make people want to come and watch.”

As well as that helping to build a committed fanbase for the WE League, the division may also benefit as a result of the Olympics having been pushed back a year. 

When addressing the fans in a post-match speech, Urawa’s Sugasawa declared she was in the national team as a result of her performances for and as a representative of Reds, for example, and hopefully things will work in the opposite direction too, with the efforts of the players at the Olympics providing a springboard to raise enthusiasm for the burgeoning new division.

The World Cup win in 2011, for instance, sparked a short-term boom in interest in the women’s game, and if Nadeshiko Japan can achieve some level of success again at Tokyo 2020 then it will surely carry over into the following month and provide a major kickstart for the WE League.


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