Japan’s Women Have Come Farther Than Most by Tom Byer
Nadeshiko Japan made lots of noise by knocking off host Germany, 1-0, to reach the semifinals, and the team will make history if can beat Sweden on Wednesday and reach the final. You can’t find many people inside Japan these days that are not following their beloved Nadeshiko, which is led by Homare Sawa, the team captain who is scored a hat trick against New Zealand during the qualifying round. Sawa is perhaps the best known Japanese player, having played in five World Cups and three Olympics.
Japan’s current team has been together since the Beijing Olympics, where it finished fourth. And while Japan has a long history in women’s soccer, it has not enjoyed success like this summer’s until recently. Japan formed its women’s national league in 1989, which helped the national team qualify for the first World Cup in China in 1991, and it has qualified for every World Cup. Japan had only advanced out of the group stage once before this summer, when it lost to the United States, 4-0, in the quarterfinals.
In fact, Japan won only one game in its first three trips to the World Cup, but several years ago the Japanese Football Association decided to get more serious about women’s soccer. The J.F.A.’s Captain’s Mission mandate set in motion a better network for identifying players, along with better coaching and the involvement of former national team players. Of note, all though more women coaches have become involved with the game, there is still only one in the country who holds the SQ License, which is the equivalent to the A License given out by U.S. Soccer. She is Midori Honda, who served as Japan’s captain at the first World Cup and was the first woman to pass the difficult exam and receive the license. Honda is currently an assistant coach for Japan’s under-20 team.
Still, not a lot of money or resources are put into the women’s game. Compared with some of the world’s powerhouse programs such as America or Germany, the difference is staggering. I have conducted thousands of soccer clinics for over 500,000 kids over the past 20 years and over all the number of girls playing the game has remained flat. So the pool from which to select players is still very small. However, the organization for identifying and the emphasis on training technical skills at a very young age has been the difference. So although the number of players has neither increased or decreased over the years, better resources and training methods have produced better results.
The woman have the same set up for national training centers as the men. There are 47 regions and each has a training center program. These are not facilities in the physical sense, rather the name of the program. They meet monthly to provide specialized training for select players, and that training culminates in a national camp in December that brings together the best 15-year-olds in the country.
Soccer is a year-round sport where players play 365 days a year, men or women. You can not help but produce good, technically sound players if the content and emphasis is on technical skills.
This is what is happening in Japan.
Tom Byer, the former director of Coerver Coaching Asia, was born in the Bronx. He has lived in Japan for more than 25 years, where he is known as Tom-san, and has conducted more than 2,000 soccer events for more than 500,000 children. He also appears on a nationally televised, daily show for children.