Twelve years after their first World Cup triumph, Japan are again darlings on the biggest stage

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AUCKLAND, New Zealand — It’s not possible to think about the Japan women’s national team at the 2023 Women’s World Cup without remembering the 2011 Women’s World Cup, where each passing game brought more wins and drew more neutrals in to support the growing Asian nation.

Of course, 2011 itself is forever entwined with the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami that devastated Japan and impacted members of the squad on a personal level. As Nadeshiko moved through the rounds to eventually lift the trophy in Frankfurt, beating the U.S. on penalties after a 2-2 draw in extra time, the team and country leaned on each other: Those back home were given a window of joy at one of the hardest times in recent history, while the squad in Germany drew strength from those almost half a world away.

It could, and should, have been the springboard for women’s football in Japan, yet the Japanese Football Association let apathy dictate the short-term future of the programme. Although the country continued to produce world class footballers, the team failed to take its place among the global elite.

Yet their success in 2023, finishing with three wins and 11 goals scored/zero conceded in the group stage before thumping Norway 3-1 in the round of 16, is a sign that they might well be back where they belong at the summit of the sport.

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It’s not been an easy path, of course. At the 2015 World Cup, on scorching plastic pitches across Canada, the Nadeshiko flattered to deceive. The team seemed apathetic on the pitch, happy to possess the ball but without much drive to get forward and claim easy wins. Coach Norio Sasaki, who led the team to victory four years prior and remained in the job despite not evolving his ideas, saw his side stagger to the final where they’d be thrashed 5-2 by a resurgent U.S. side in Vancouver, conceding four times in the first 16 minutes to render the spectacle a non-event.

The 2019 tournament, while led by new coach Asako Takakura, also saw Japan fall short. Promoted from the youth ranks, Takakura looked to bring through the next generation, but the team looked scruffy and unconvincing. While there was some misfortune in how they were eliminated — conceding a stoppage time penalty for an unintentional handball and losing 2-1 to the Netherlands in the round of 16 — they had again failed to show their best football.

Takakura would stay in her position through the rescheduled Tokyo Olympics when, again, Nadeshiko would be eliminated after their best 90 minutes of football, falling 3-1 to eventual silver medalists in the quarterfinals.

As they had with Takakura, the JFA looked to the youth set-up and promoted a coach, Futoshi Ikeda, who’d already enjoyed success with the next generation of Japanese footballers. A reserved man who rarely gives much away, his style was far removed from Sasaki, who was known for his warm and easygoing manner with those who covered his team.

At first, the results were not promising for Ikeda. The system and style when he first took over raised questions of his suitability, as Japan’s football was drab and awkward. It would take a shift to a 3-4-3 in the autumn of 2022 for the pieces to begin to click for Nadeshiko; also, it was when Ikeda firmly put his faith in the youth players he had coached to success.

It still took time for Japan to work out the kinks over subsequent matches, but when the team took to the field for a hat trick of games in the SheBelieves Cup earlier this year, it was clear to see they had finally, after over a decade, gotten their mojo back. While they did finish second to the U.S. in that competition, Japan claimed a big win over Canada and pushed both the U.S. and Brazil to the limit in 1-0 defeats.

Now at this World Cup, four matches with 14 goals scored and just one conceded, no other team has looked as dangerous, as adaptable or as smart as Ikeda’s. However, it’s not just about the joy they’ve experienced on the pitch, but the perfect recipe off of it.

Their success goes beyond Ikeda, the switch in formation and even the groundwork laid by the likes of World Cup winners Homare Sawa, Aya Miyama and Azusa Iwashimizu; the less obvious angle is how this squad is learning from and combining the experiences they’ve garnered playing both in and outside of Japan. Although the Japanese FA pushed through the formation of the Women Empowerment League two seasons ago — the only fully professional women’s league in Asia, and one with lofty goals of affecting change in Japanese society and promoting more gender equality — it’s also no surprise that many of these players have left Japan to grow their game outside of their home league.

When Nadeshiko take to the pitch, you can see that mix of experiences — from midfielder Yui Hasegawa, who has played in Italy and England, to forward Jun Endo, who has found more room to express herself as an individual at Angel City FC in the U.S., and even captain and stalwart Saki Kumagai, who spent the majority of her senior career between Germany and France. Even Japan’s regular No. 9 at this tournament, Mina Tanaka, enjoyed a loan spell at Bayer Leverkusen before returning home.

There is no question that the technical ability and professionalisation in the WE League has helped shape the players into the global dominators they are, but there’s also little doubt that being able to experience different leagues, different styles and push themselves outside their comfort zones has added vast layers of depth to the national team.

It’s evident up and down the squad. There’s the breakout (and goals) of midfielder Hinata Miyazawa, Hasegawa’s sublime vision in the heart of midfield, Aoba Fujino‘s consistency in attack — at just 19 years of age — and Kumagai’s calm head in the backline. There’s the tireless running of Tanaka, Fuka Nagano‘s metronomic presence in midfield and the spark from Endo on the wing, too: This is a team that’s adaptable and can be happy with or without the ball.

Just as they did in Germany 12 years ago, with a young Kumagai in the squad, this Japan team is not only gaining momentum at the World Cup, they are turning heads and luring neutrals into their corner. But like so many other nations at this tournament who are impressing, they’re doing so without the depth of support from their own federation or home fans. Another unwelcome parallel with that winning team: Each Japan win this summer carries the unspoken, and uncomfortable, question of what success could mean back home if the JFA are happy to let another historic side pass without building for the future.

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