Here WE go

The fully professional WE League launches this weekend, and marks a huge step forward for women’s football in Japan… (日本語版)

It’s fair to say things didn’t go as well as many had hoped for Nadeshiko Japan at Tokyo 2020, with the team never really clicking into gear and being eliminated with relative ease by eventual silver medallists Sweden in the quarter-finals.

Manager Asako Takakura’s spell in charge came to an end after the competition and the JFA is now at a crossroads as it looks to appoint her successor, with rumours swirling behind the scenes that a foreign coach may be considered to try and restore the women’s national team to its former glories.

Another stepping stone on that journey is the establishment of the fully professional WE League, which is set for its much-anticipated launch this weekend – furthering the impression that 2021 represents a critical juncture in the development of women’s football in Japan.

This new division brings with it plenty of opportunities but also represents a leap into the unknown, and it is vital that the enthusiasm swirling around the start of the season can be converted into something longer term as the players and clubs adapt to their newly professional status.

Terms like ‘strengthen’ and ‘generate excitement’ were thrown around a lot in the various media activities ahead of the maiden season – which kicks off with 10 of the 11 founding members in action on Sunday – and while many factors will ultimately determine how successful the division becomes, the initial responsibility rests largely on the players and coaches and how well they perform out on the pitch.

The fact that all matches are being broadcast on DAZN will ensure the league is able to reach a far larger audience than the relatively niche following the women’s game has enjoyed to date in Japan, and the first priority must be to establish a connection between the competition and those watching it. The more established teams of course already have core fanbases, but the move to professionalism means they will need to amplify them while the newer clubs have to work to position themselves in their local communities and attract as many supporters as possible to provide themselves with a steady footing.

Star players are one surefire way to gain and keep attention – particularly from the more casual strata of fans needed to help move the women’s game into the mainstream – and it is vital that clubs pull out all the stops to ensure the limelight stays on the league.

Time, money, and effort need to be dedicated to marketing efforts off the pitch, while requisite support needs to be provided behind the scenes to ensure the conditions are right for young local talent to develop and establish themselves as the faces of the competition. The women’s game in Japan is very highly regarded around the world, and if the right professional environment can be established that would increasingly attract players and coaches from further afield, whose arrival in Japan would then in turn add to the WE League’s appeal.

There are positive signs in this regard with the signings of Alex Chidiac and Quinley Quezada at JEF United, Sarina Bolden at Chifure AS Elfen Saitama, and Rosnani Azman at INAC Kobe Leonessa, and if these players can make positive impressions then it is only natural that other clubs will be tempted to follow suit and expand their scouting horizons. The Olympics showcased some of the best female players in the world, and it is a slight shame that WE League clubs didn’t capitalise upon the opportunity of having them playing on their doorsteps by putting out some feelers for potential recruits. The bigger stars of that competition would of course have been beyond the financial means of the WE League clubs – and the ongoing Covid-19 entry restrictions make international signings extra complicated – but it does look like something of an opportunity missed.

As demonstrated by England’s burgeoning Women’s Super League (WSL), perseverance, increased visibility, and financial backing are key ingredients to success. The WSL is now into its fourth season as a fully professional competition having been semi-professional since 2011, and its growth in recent years has led to greatly increased media exposure, an influx of some of the world’s best players – including Nadeshiko Japan stars Mana Iwabuchi at Arsenal and Yui Hasegawa at West Ham United – and, from this season, a broadcast deal worth a reported £8 million a year.

The WE League of course has plenty of obstacles to overcome before it can hope to be in such rude health, but if the first steps can be taken confidently then the future of both the domestic game and national team should be bright.

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