Flower Power: Nadeshiko Japan Waltzes to Victory over Matildas


In Vietnam on May 25, Japan’s women international soccer players once more gave their male counterparts something to live up to by adding a first-ever Asian Cup triumph to their glittering resume. The final was a hard-fought 1–0 victory over a dynamic Australia side in the sweltering heat of Ho Chi Minh City’s Thong Nhat Stadium. The members of the team demonstrated every ounce of the determination, imagination, and organization that have brought them such recognition in the last five years.

A Rollercoaster of a Tournament

The tournament as a whole showed off the various strings the team has to its bow. Japan opened the group stage with a display of mental toughness by coming back from 2–0 down against Australia, salvaging a draw with two goals in the last 20 minutes. In doing so, the players gained an important psychological edge over the team that they would eventually meet again in the final. In the remaining group games Japan went on to ruthlessly demolish host Vietnam (4–0) and Jordan (7–0), exploiting the defensive frailties of their overmatched opponents with displays of attacking power and pace, as well as the clever set plays that the team known affectionately as Nadeshiko Japan has by now made into something of a trademark.

The impeccable dead-ball deliveries of captain Miyama Aya featured heavily in the semifinal against China, which—predictably for any matchup between these two longstanding rivals—turned into something of an emotional rollercoaster. Japan dominated possession throughout the game, but struggled to break down the solid Chinese defense until early in the second half, when Miyama sent a perfect corner kick to the near post to meet the head of team star Sawa Homare, who deftly flicked the ball past the startled keeper. Japan continued to press, but proved unable to add a second goal and was dealt a devastating blow 10 minutes from the final whistle, when right winger Nakajima Emi was judged to have handled the ball inside her own penalty area. Li Dongna stepped up to bury the resulting PK and take the game into extra time.

The additional period followed a similar pattern to the first 90 minutes, but Japan struggled to make its pressure count until the 110th minute, when center back Iwashimizu Azusa headed in another Miyama corner at the far post. (She would repeat the feat by scoring the decisive goal in the final.) Tears of joy and relief ensued as the final whistle sounded, booking Japan’s place in the title decider. But with their team having lost out at the same stage of the competition on four prior occasions, none of the Japanese players were taking anything for granted this time.

What Champions Are Made Of

To stay focused in energy-sapping tropical conditions is no small achievement—especially under the considerable pressure that comes with the mantle of favorite, and with little time for respite between matches in a tournament that also coincided with a hectic L. League schedule. This composure, in the midst of a bright media spotlight that was until relatively recently the exclusive preserve of the men’s team, has come to characterize the reign of head coach Sasaki Norio who, since taking charge of Nadeshiko in 2008, has led the side to an unprecedented haul of trophies that shows little sign of letting up.

In his first tournament in charge, Sasaki guided Japan to victory at the 2008 EAFF East Asian Cup, a feat repeated two years later in a busy 2010 that also saw Japan take the gold medal at the Asian Games. But the crowning glory was just around the corner. In summer 2011—just months after their home country was ravaged by the 3/11 earthquake and tsunami—Nadeshiko Japan’s players outstripped all expectations to claim the World Cup in Germany, overcoming the host, as well as well-regarded Sweden, on the way to the final. There they drew 2–2 with perennial women’s soccer powerhouse America before winning in a tense penalty shootout, becoming the first Asian team to win a FIFA World Cup at any level of the sport.

Breaking Up Is Hard to Do

Senior players like captain Miyama and veteran Sawa—who holds a record number of international caps and has become the recognizable face of the national team—have also served as a shining example to some of their less experienced teammates. The old-guard players have steadied the ship with their serenity and self-assuredness, as well as spurring the team on through their own tireless work ethic and meticulous preparation. But time waits for no one. Despite this week’s addition to the trophy cabinet, Sasaki has much to ponder as he tries to find the right time to blood fresh talent and phase out the aging players who have served him so well while allowing enough overlap to ensure that the new generation can benefit from playing alongside their decorated predecessors.

This issue is political as well as tactical, as the Japanese fans have become emotionally attached to the players who did so much to lift the nation’s mood at such a sensitive time. The absence from the setup of Sawa and other cherished faces might result in a loss of interest. How this difficult problem will be dealt with is unclear, but there is a chance that retaining the services of popular veterans as part of any future coaching setup might just be the way to keep Nadeshiko blooming.

Record of Japan's Women at International Soccer Tournaments

1980 Inaugural All-Japan Women's Soccer Championships held
1981 Japan Women's International Team assembled for first time
AFC Women's Asian Cup (Hong Kong) Group stage
1986 AFC Women's Asian Cup (Hong Kong) Second place
1989 AFC Women's Asian Cup (Hong Kong) Third place
Women's Soccer League (L. League) begins
1990 Asian Games (Beijing, China) Second place
1991 AFC Women's Asian Cup (Japan) Second place
FIFA Women's World Cup (China) Group stage
1993 AFC Women's Asian Cup (Malaysia) Third place
1994 Asian Games (Hiroshima, Japan) Second place
1995 FIFA Women's World Cup (Sweden) Quarterfinals
AFC Women's Asian Cup (Malaysia) Second place
1996 Summer Olympics (Atlanta, USA) Group stage
1997 AFC Women's Asian Cup (China) Third place
1998 Asian Games (Bangkok, Thailand) Third place
1999 FIFA Women's World Cup (USA) Group stage
AFC Women's Asian Cup (Philippines) Fourth place
2000 Summer Olympics (Sydney, Australia) Qualifying tournament
2001 AFC Women's Asian Cup (Taiwan) Second place
2002 Asian Games (Busan, South Korea) Third place
2003 FIFA Women's World Cup (USA) Group stage
AFC Women's Asian Cup (Thailand) Fourth place
2004 Summer Olympics (Athens, Greece) Quarterfinals
2005 EAFF Women's East Asian Cup (South Korea) Third place
2006 AFC Women's Asian Cup (Australia) Fourth place
Asian Games (Doha, Qatar) Second place
2007 FIFA Women's World Cup (China) Group stage
2008 EAFF Women's East Asian Cup (China) Champion
Summer Olympics (Beijing, China) Fourth place
AFC Women's Asian Cup (Vietnam) Third place
2010 EAFF Women's East Asian Cup (Japan) Champion
AFC Women's Asian Cup (China) Third place
Asian Games (Guangzhou, China) Champion
2011 FIFA Women's World Cup (Germany) Champion
2012 Summer Olympics (London, UK) Second place
2013 EAFF Women's East Asian Cup (South Korea) Second place
2014 AFC Women's Asian Cup (Vietnam) Champion

(Banner photo: Nadeshiko Japan's members loft the AFC Women's Asian Cup trophy. © AP/Aflo.)

Nadeshiko soccer Sawa Homare World Cup sports Miyama Aya