By Dan Orlowitz
While an entire roster's worth of Japanese stars are active in Europe and the men's national team continues to play well under coach Alberto Zaccheroni, there is a quiet revolution taking place in the Land of the Rising Sun as women's soccer emerges from obscurity.
Although their Fifa Women's World Cup championship and an undefeated run in Olympic qualifying weren't enough to gain Japan's Nadeshiko more respect from Zurich (they remain fourth in the latest Fifa Women's World Rankings, unchanged from before the summer), their success on the field has translated into attention from fans and sponsors.
After Olympic qualifying, the Nadeshiko League announced a new sponsorship deal with credit card company Mitsui Suitomo. The agreement, the league's second following that of Plenus Co. Ltd., will allow the nine-team competition to fulfill its goal of holding matches across the country. With several other companies said to be in negotiations with the league, 2012 could be an even bigger year.
Individual stars are also benefiting, using their new-found fame to advance the sport in a country where a thick glass ceiling persists. Last week Coca-Cola Japan announced a three-year contract worth nearly €1 million with 33-year-old Nadeshiko veteran and INAC Kobe Leonessa midfielder Homare Sawa. The deal makes her the first female Japanese footballer with such an endorsement.
|WOMEN'S FOOTBALL BY THE NUMBERS
|25.2%||Average TV ratings for Japan women's NT vs DPR Korea, 8/9/11, 4.30pm kick-off|
|20.9%||Average TV ratings for Japan men's NT vs Uzbekistan, 6/9/11, 11pm kick-off|
|€1,260,000||Money allocated to Japan's women's team for 2011 fiscal year|
|€19,730,000||Money allocated to Japan's men's team for 2011 fiscal year|
|€8,280,000||Money allocated to Japan's U-23 men's team for 2011 fiscal year|
With a career that has spanned oceans, Sawa is known for not only wanting to drive her team forward, but also for investing in her country's future. Since Japan's World Cup victory she has insisted on funding for girls' youth teams as a stipulation in all endorsements, even if it comes at a cost to her paycheck.
The courageous performances of Sawa and her team-mates have also spurred on changes in high schools. The All Japan High School Athletic Federation is expected to announce that girls' football will participate in both summer and winter national tournaments, putting the sport at even footing with its male counterpart in that respect. Roughly 40 of Tokyo's 300 high schools with boys teams have girls teams and perennially-strong schools have noted a rise in the number of students seeking admission.
The dearth of competition in secondary education is one potential roadblock to continued success by Nadeshiko. Unlike the US where there are over 1.6 million registered female footballers (45 times that of Japan), the country has no program to equally distribute funding and scholarships between women's and men's teams.
|"Another remaining question is whether the Nadeshiko League can benefit from interest in the women's game. The league has set multiple records for attendance since the World Cup, and many teams have started charging for tickets to capitalise."|
Another remaining question is whether the Nadeshiko League can benefit from interest in the women's game. The league has set multiple records for attendance since the World Cup, and many teams have started charging for tickets to capitalise. Prime seats for women's soccer in Japan top out at about €23, less than half what some J-League teams charge.
Not all is positive, though, as the semi-professional league has struggled to keep teams afloat. TEPCO Mareeze, operated by the company infamous for its handling of the Fukushima nuclear reactor, suspended play this season and recently made the decision to disband. Mareeze's roster included Aya Sameshima, a 24-year-old defender who featured in the Women's World Cup. Sameshima, who previously worked at the nuclear plant, recently signed with French side Montpellier. She is among a number of Japanese players active in Europe including Kozue Ando, Yuki Nagasato and Rumi Utsugi.
While many questions remain unanswered, the mood surrounding women's soccer is tentatively positive. The Kanagawa prefecture town of Yamato, known worldwide as the birthplace of several star players, welcomed hometown heroes Nahomi Kawasumi, Shinobu Ohno and Megumi Kamionobe in a homecoming parade seen by over 10,000. Town officials at the ceremony promised to rename the shopping street in honour of Nadeshiko should they win the gold in next year's London Olympics. If Japan's leading ladies continue the form they have shown in 2011, the promise of Yamato Nadeshiko Street and of women's soccer in this island nation could become a reality.