Photo:GoToVan on Flickr

Samurai Soccer: The Story of Japan’s Nadeshiko Heroes

Football, or soccer as my mis-informed American friends tend to call it, the world’s most popular sport. The final of the men’s FIFA World Cup in Brazil in 2014 was watched by an estimated 3 billion people worldwide, almost half of the global population.

With such a wide range of viewers, football has long held a propensity to inspire people, groups and sometimes even entire nations to whole new levels of accomplishment. It can also provide great solace and comfort to people in times of great need.

Japan, though undoubtedly the footballing superpower in Asia for most of the last 20 years, has not yet made a real impact at the highest levels of the men’s game. Second round appearances as co-hosts in 2002 and then again in 2010 in South Africa remain Japan’s biggest success stories at global level to date.

Until that time, like many other aspects of Japanese society, the women took second place to the men. That is until something truly incredible happened in 2011.

In a stunning upset, Japan edged out the US in a thrilling final match to win the women’s World Cup for the first time. It was a stunning upset and fine example of why so many people around the world love “the beautiful game” and its tendency to both amaze and enthrall.

Photo : GoToVan on Flickr

The road to glory certainly wasn’t easy for these women however. Women’s soccer in Japan has had a colourful and often difficult history.

Unlike most of Europe, and perhaps on a parallel with the US, football has developed in Japan as a sport accessible to both boys and girls. The women’s soccer league actually predates the men’s J-League by about 15 years, though admittedly the J-League itself is only 22 years old. Nevertheless women’s football in Japan grew quickly alongside the men’s game. However, whilst the likes of Hidetoshi Nakata, Shunsuke Nakamura and Junichi Inamoto moved abroad in the late 90s and early 2000s, Japan’s female stars struggled to gain recognition, even in their own country.

Failure to qualify for the Olympic Soccer tournament in 2000 pushed the women’s game to crisis point. Interest waned, team numbers started to dwindle. It seemed the game was up.

The JFA deserve credit for their decisive action in restoring the women’s game in the following years. A new coach, and a rebranding set the scene for what was to come.

In 2004, national interest in the women’s football team reached fever pitch. After a tough start under new coach Eiji Ueda, Japan had finally managed to put a winning run together, meaning that going into their final game, they could still qualify for the upcoming Olympic Games. Their opponents for this final battle, none other than bitter rivals North Korea. A capacity crowd in the national stadium and millions on TV at home watched with joy as Japan came through, reaching the Olympic tournament and eventually going on to reach the quarter finals.

Following on from the huge publicity generated by this final qualifying match, a national competition was launched to find a new name for Japan’s new generation of sporting heroes. In the end, the name “Nadeshiko Japan” was chosen as the official name for the women’s team. The word Nadeshiko means a delicate, carnation like flower and is derived from the old Japanese phrase “Yamato Nadeshiko” meaning “ideal Japanese woman”. It is said to embody not only the elegance and beauty, but also the tremendous spirit and strength of character of these young women.

Photo : toyohara on Flickr

As time went on, results continued to improve. Despite not making it past the group stage at the 2007 World Cup, a draw with a highly fancied England side certainly gave the fans plenty of scope for optimism. The 2008 Olympics brought with it a new milestone for the Nadeshiko. A memorable 2-0 victory over former world champions and long-time rivals China in the quarter finals propelled Japan to an eventual fourth placed finish. Their highest yet. This was followed up with a third place finish at the AFC Asian Cup in 2010, Japan’s best showing in the tournament since making the final in 2001.

In spite of these successes, few could have imagined what was to come. 2011 would prove to go beyond even the wildest dreams of all but the most hopelessly optimistic of Japanese football fanatics.

2011 was a difficult year for Japan. In March of that year, just a matter of months before the World Cup was to take place, Japan was devastated by a series of Earthquakes and Tsunamis. In the ensuing chaos, Japan and her people endured incredible hardships and heartbreak. For many, the appetite for sporting contest simply wasn’t there.

In spite of this turmoil, the Nadeshiko themselves were emboldened. Going into the tournament, this was no longer just a sporting contest. It was a matter of national honour and pride. To the Nadeshiko, this tournament was a chance to show the world that for all they had suffered, Japan was still here, still strong and still proud!

They undertook this task with a skill, poise and determination that would have made all the great masters of footballing history proud.

Photo : mookiy on Flickr

Japan made their early intentions clear, as they powered to a hard thought 1-0 victory over Argentina in their opening game, before brutally sweeping Mexico aside 4-0 in their second match. An unfortunate 2-0 loss to England in the final game however, meant that they qualified not as group winners, but as runners up.

A quarter final showdown with defending champions Germany looked to have pushed the Nadeshiko beyond their limits.

It was here, when everyone had written them off, that Japan truly showed their samurai spirit. Whilst certainly not their most technically accomplished display at the tournament, the heart, guile and sheer force of will with which they edged out a narrow 1-0 over Germany finally established them as genuine title contenders. A semi-final showdown with Sweden awaited them.

Despite once again being considered underdogs to the highly-rated Swedes, Japan emerged triumphant with a spectacular 3-1 win. The US, tournament favourites and the long-term dominant force in women’s soccer was all that stood between Nadeshiko and one of football’s greatest victories against the odds.

Japan sought to end the tournament as they had begun, with fire, determination and ferocity. The US was equal to the challenge however, and after 120 minutes of pulsating battle, the scores sat level at 2-2. The dreaded lottery of the penalty shoot-out would ultimately decide their fate.

Fortune favours the brave as they say, and so it was with the Nadeshiko, who held their nerve to win the shootout 3-1 and give Japanese football its first ever world trophy. The gauntlet well and truly thrown down, Japan’s men also stepped up to the plate that year, taking the men’s AFC Asian Cup title. 2011 may have been one of Japan’s most challenging years, but for Japanese Football, it remains its finest.

The Nadeshiko returned home triumphant, to a nation bursting with pride at a group who had beaten the odds and never given up. Much like the many heroes and volunteers who steered Japan out of disaster that year, the Nadeshiko of 2011 have also earned their own special place in the proud history of this great country.

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