Posts Tagged ‘Yukari Kinga

13
Dec
11

Panda-ing to the masses

Women’s football in Japan is currently doing very well for itself. Success brings fresh challenges though, and it is important that the game tackles them now if it wants to maintain its popularity …

The first time I watched a women’s football match in Japan – ok, probably the first time I ever watched a women’s football match – was in July 2009, when I saw Urawa Ladies take on Beleza at Komaba.

While I was surprised by the level on the pitch and the number of spectators there (nearly 2,000), it was still obviously far-removed from the men’s game.

The amount of interest didn’t seem much higher when I attended a Nadeshiko training session in Tokyo just before the World Cup, with only a handful of journalists present.

Of course, those experiences contrast greatly to the scenes that have been the norm since Homare Sawa et al returned from Germany as World Champions.

The increase in popularity is positive in many respects, and if that can be maintained then the women’s game could go from strength-to-strength. That is not going to be easy though, and I worry that the majority of people will quickly lose interest.

A fellow journalist provided the best analogy of the current situation when describing Sawa as being “like a panda” – everybody wants to take a picture but once they’ve got it their appetite has been sated and they move on to (insert ice-skater/volleyball player/swimmer here).

For me, the recent tour in Japan by Arsenal Ladies was interesting, as it served as a good marker of a) how women’s football in Japan is being viewed from the outside – away from the hype – and b) how many people here still cared.

In the first instance, things were hugely encouraging, with the Arsenal players genuinely excited to be playing against some of the best players in the world and keen to benefit from the experience.

“The most pleasing thing about watching the Japanese team play [at the World Cup],” captain Jayne Ludlow told me the day before their game against INAC Kobe, “was the freedom and the enjoyment they seemed to have playing the games. “Even in high-pressured situations they were smiling – the penalties was a typical example, they didn’t look like they were under pressure at all and they performed brilliantly. So maybe there’s something to learn from that.”

After the game, too, Jennifer Beattie, who scored the equaliser in the 1-1 draw, also spoke about picking things up from the Japanese players.

“The Japanese style of [women’s] football is one of the best in the world,” she said. “Their technique, their first touch, their range of passing is just unbelievable. And that’s probably something that English football and every other style can learn from.”

The game itself was of a high-standard, and in Nahomi Kawasumi, Shinobu Ono, Megumi Takase and Ji So-yun INAC have some hugely exciting attacking talent.

With regards to b), Over 11,000 people were at Kokuritsu for the match, which suggests that there are still plenty of people there for the game and not just the snapshot.

This is exactly how Sawa herself explained things when I spoke to her ahead of the game. “Initially, of course, it can’t be helped; they want to see famous players,” she said. “But I don’t think it’s just that, I think people are genuinely starting to take an interest in the football.”

In England, too, the media is slowly getting behind the game, but Ludlow still thinks there is room for improvement.

“ESPN do show some of the games, but it can always be bigger and better,” she said. “The more profile we get, obviously with funding, [the better], and hopefully in five or 10 years we can go professional.

INAC’s Yukari Kinga thinks the focus should be at the other end of the spectrum as well.

“At the root, at the bottom,” she said after the game with Arsenal. “The youth, in junior high school, middle school. I hope that it can grow more.

“In America, lots of young girls play football. If that could happen in Japan it would naturally make women’s football stronger, it would go in the right direction. So I feel we need to grow more.”

Things certainly look to be on the up, but the key to longevity is not easy to find. Efforts, such as this Arsenal tour, should be made to secure it now though, or people could soon be moving on to the next exhibit.

29
Aug
11

Getting in touch with our feminine side

Nadeshiko Japan didn’t only triumph by winning the World Cup, but they also brought out my softer side… 

They did it! Nadeshiko Japan are the World Champions and I would like to start this week’s column by congratulating everybody involved in Germany – from the coaches and players to backroom staff. What an incredible achievement.

Of course, I knew that they were going to win the World Cup before Saki Kumagai slammed home the historic winner though (and what an incredible strike – the perfect penalty in more ways than one).

No, I didn’t call it before the tournament, and even during the final I had my doubts. The point at which I knew that they had the cup secured, though, was in the break between extra-time and penalties.

Yes, Japan had just snatched defeat away from the US right at the death – with Homare Sawa for the second game in a row making amends for a mistake in the build-up to an opponents’ goal by scoring herself – and while the psychological impact of that certainly affected the American players, that isn’t how I knew.

The moment it became obvious, however, was as the camera panned around between the two sets of players.

The American team were stony-faced and serious-looking. They were huddled together and geeing each other up, back-slapping and high-fiving and generally looking like they had work to do, with all the troubles of the world on their minds.

The Japanese camp was exactly the opposite. The players and staff were laughing and joking, already hugging each other on a job well done and looking completely at ease; they were enjoying themselves.

It was almost as if they couldn’t quite believe they were in this position; how are we just a penalty shoot-out away from winning the World Cup? they seemed to be asking.

Then, it looked like they’d blown it. Everybody gathered into a huddle and Sasaki-kantoku leant forwards, seemingly set to offer some serious words of advice or encouragement. But no! Instead he said something (what, I don’t know) before bursting into laughter along with everybody else and sending them on their way to collect the trophy. Simple.

And simple it was. America, feeling the strain, missed their first three penalties – thanks in no small part to the bundle of energy that is Ayumi Kaihori, who repelled two of them – while the Nadeshiko eased into things with Aya Miyama slotting home one of the coolest, calmest penalties I’ve ever seen. Pressure? What pressure?

Everybody knows what happened next, and while Sawa-san has, quite rightly, been receiving most of the praise since the triumph, I’m delighted that it was Kumagai who struck the decisive penalty.

Throughout the tournament she and her central-defensive partner Azusa Iwashimizu were fantastic for Japan, throwing themselves into tackles, blocking shots and comfortable when bringing the ball forwards to start attacks.

It was Iwashimizu who headed home the winner in the Asian Games final last year, and this time too she made a crucial contribution to the win, with her foul in the last minute keeping Japan in the match.

I’m still not 100% that it was a foul, but she knew that it was worth risking the red card in order to prevent what would surely have been the winner for the US.

The full-backs Yukari Kinga and Aya Sameshima – who I’ve developed a bit of a crush on – were also superb, constantly joining the attacks and causing problems for opposition defences, while the likes of Karina Maruyama and Nahomi Kawasumi – two more crushes – who started the tournament as substitutes, also played key roles at vital times on the way to the title.

America’s goalkeeper Hope Solo said after the final that, “I truly believe that something bigger was pulling for this team. If there were any other team I could give this to it would have to be Japan. I’m happy for them and they do deserve it.”

And this something bigger was the fantastic team spirit within the squad and, most importantly, the fact that they were enjoying themselves.

As well as adding the World Cup to their trophy cabinet, the side also succeeded in helping me get a little more in touch with my feminine side; each time I see the highlights on TV I find myself tearing up.




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