Asia’s greatest national teams – Japan Women (2008-16)
Kuala Lumpur: National teams old and new have set out with the ultimate goal of bringing the World Cup back to Asia, but only one has succeeded.
The Japanese women’s national team of 2011 became Asia’s world champions at the senior level, overcoming tournament hosts and defending champions Germany in the quarter-final before outlasting the United States in a classic final and providing a boost to a nation still reeling from a painful natural disaster.
That remarkable win in Germany represented the peak of their success, but it was far from the Nadeshiko’s only breakthrough success, with first-time titles in the Asian Games and AFC Women’s Asian Cup and a FIFA World Player of the Year title for team leader Homare Sawa all materialising in an unprecedented four-year period.
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There was little reason to expect such a string of accomplishments when Norio Sasaki (pictured below, left), previously an assistant, took over the top job at the beginning of 2008.
Japan had only a single quarter-final defeat to show for five previous World Cup appearances and had never won an Asian title at either the AFC Women’s Asian Cup or Asian Games, but an immensely talented squad was not far away from shaking up the women’s football hierarchy in Asia and beyond.
Sasaki made a dream start to life in the top job, winning the 2008 EAFF East Asian Cup just weeks into his tenure thanks to quality performances from Sawa, as well as Aya Miyama, Shinobu Ohno and Yuki Nagasato, although the AFC Women’s Asian Cup remained out of reach later in the year, with losses to Korea Republic and China PR resulting in a somewhat disappointing third place finish.
The first major indication of Japan’s impending rise came at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, where they thrashed European powerhouse Norway 5-1 in the group stage and knocked out tournament hosts China PR in the quarter-finals before finishing fourth after defeats to the US and Germany.
While leaving without medal came as a blow, it would be eight years before the Nadeshiko missed another major international final.
The East Asian title was retained in February 2010, and while they were frustrated by a semi-final exit at the Women’s Asian Cup in Chengdu, a long-awaited Continental title did arrive at the 2010 Asian Games, also in China - in Guangzhou - where Japan went through the entire campaign without conceding a goal, and ultimately claimed the gold medal with a 1-0 win over DPR Korea thanks to Azusa Iwashimizu’s late goal in the final.
Japan were now genuine contenders in every tournament they entered, but despite their consistency – and a world ranking as high as fourth – few were looking towards Asia when naming possible contenders for the 2011 FIFA Women’s World Cup.
By the same token, few in Japan were preoccupied by football.
The Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami of March 2011, which killed thousands and caused a nuclear disaster in Fukushima, meant Sasaki’s players left what was still a grieving nation when they departed for Germany for the Finals.
Those devastating events were close to home for a number of Sasaki’s players.
Two of them – Aya Sameshima (pictured above, left) and Karina Maruyama – were employed at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant which had suffered such major damage, and the Japan Football Association’s ‘J-Village’ national training centre had been converted into an emergency refuge in the days after the meltdown.
Against this backdrop, Sasaki made the decision to rouse his players with images of the disaster prior to their quarter-final against reigning world and European champions Germany; a match almost all pundits predicted the Nadeshiko would lose.
Speaking in a tearful 2019 interview, Sameshima recalled: "It is certain that it motivated the whole team to win. However, I could not look directly at the pictures.”
Against all the odds, Japan beat the Germans 1-0 in extra-time – with Maruyama (pictured above) scoring the winner – before coming from behind to beat Sweden 3-1 in the semi-final, setting up a decider with an American team chasing their third world title.
What followed was a remarkable contest in Frankfurt, with the Americans – who had less of the possession, but more of the chances - taking the lead with 20 minutes remaining, only for a defensive gaffe to be punished by a tenacious Miyama in the 81st minute.
Amy Wambach put the favourites back in front mid-way through extra-time, but the Nadeshiko refused to wilt, and produced another improbable recovery when the sensational Sawa, later voted tournament MVP and FIFA World Player of the Year, conjured an equaliser with an extraordinary flick from Miyama’s 117th minute corner kick.
To the delight of the millions watching on in the early hours of the morning back at home, Japan prevailed on penalties, with a baby-faced Saki Kumagai delivering the winning blow, and shattering a glass ceiling for all of Asian football.
In pure sporting terms, it was an unparalleled achievement in the Asian game, but it was also a win which provided something beyond sport, with Sawa’s mother arguably summing it up best when she told a national television network she had “felt the whole of Japan smile”.
Sasaki’s history-makers then went close to completing a global double at the London Olympics of 2012 but they suffered a 2-1 defeat in the gold medal match against the same American side they had beaten a year prior.
While Olympic glory was not forthcoming, they did finally claim their elusive AFC Women’s Asian Cup title in Vietnam in 2014, with Iwashimizu reprising her match winning role from the 2010 Asian Games decider with the decisive goal against Australia in a 1-0 win in the final.
For many key figures in the Japanese side, that 2014 Asian title would be the last they would win with the national team.
The seemingly evergreen Sawa, 36, was one of six players aged over 30 when the team arrived in Canada for the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup, but despite their advancing years, Japan won all three group matches before scoring late goals in knockout stage wins over the Netherlands (2-1), Australia (1-0) and England (2-1) to meet the United States in the third successive major international decider.
Japan had stunned the world four years earlier, but they were blown away this time, with the Americans scoring four times in the opening 15 minutes on the way to an eventual 5-2 win, which proved to be the beginning of the end for Japan, particularly when the iconic Sawa retiring by the year’s end.
Sasaki, who had once remarked that Sawa “symbolises exactly the style of football our team should play… and the entire history of women’s football in Japan”, continued as head coach at the qualifying tournament for the Rio Olympics, but it would prove to be the nadir for one of Asia’s great sides.
Home defeats to both Australia and China PR, and a painful draw against Korea Republic, meant that Japan went from reaching three successive global finals to not even qualifying for the 2016 Olympic Games, and Sasaki stepped down as head coach at the end of the tournament, ending an extraordinary eight-year tenure.
There was an exodus in the playing ranks, too, with the international careers Miyama, Ohno, Nagasato, Iwashimizu and Kozue Ando all coming to a close, meaning the top six players on Japan’s all-time appearances list had all been lost within a matter of months.
The legacy of the team which put Asia on top of the world lives on though, and Japan remain on top of Asia.
A Nadeshiko side in transition retained the AFC Women’s Asian Cup under Asako Takakura (pictured above) in 2018, making her the first female coach, and former player, to guide the side to major honours, with 2011 world champions Kumagai and Mana Iwabuchi now among the key figures.
“I played at a time when it was unthinkable for Japan to win the World Cup,” Sawa said in a 2016 interview.
Perhaps more than any other Asian side in history, the Japan side of 2008 to 2016 made the unthinkable a reality.
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Photos: AFC, AFP
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