Women's National Team
World champions' next target: 2012 Olympics
The summer of 2011 turned out to be a year to remember for Japanese football with the "Nadeshiko" – as the Japan women's national team is called – capturing the FIFA Women's World Cup for the first time and going on to clinch a berth in next year's Olympics by winning the Asian final-round qualifiers in China.
Their double success not only boosted football in Japan, but also raised the spirits of its people in the aftermath of the East Japan earthquake and tsunami that devastated many areas in northeast Japan on March 11.
Women's football has been a phenomenon in Japan. The Nadeshiko received the National Honor Award, becoming the first group to be honored with the prize, while matches in the Plenus Nadeshiko Women's League featuring national team players are proving very popular, raising the status of the league.
A fighting display in the World Cup
Making their sixth straight appearance in the World Cup, the Nadeshiko opened their campaign by beating New Zealand 2-1 on June 28 in Bochum. Forward Yuki Nagasato scored the opener six minutes into the game and midfielder Aya Miyama drove home a free-kick in the 68th minute to secure the win.
Norio Sasaki's side then cruised past Mexico 4-0 in Leverkusen to secure a quarterfinal spot. Shinobu Ohno scored one goal, but the highlight of the game was Homare Sawa's hat trick, which included her 78th goal for her country and made her Japan's top goal-scorer, moving her past former Japan striker Kunishige Kamamoto.
But the Japanese ladies were then brought down to earth on July 5 in Augsburg, losing 2-0 to England and ending up second in Group B.
The Nadeshiko, who qualified for the World Cup by finishing third in the AFC Women's Asian Cup in May 2010, then made a great recovery, stunning world champions Germany 1-0 in Wolfsburg on July 9 thanks to substitute forward Karina Maruyama's 108th-minute winner. Their first-ever win over Germany put Japan into the semifinals for the first time. In their semifinal against Sweden on July 13 in Frankfurt, Nahomi Kawasumi scored twice and Sawa once as Japan downed Sweden 3-1.
In the final on the night of July 17, Japan surprised the world by shocking the world's top team, the United States, 3-1 on penalties following a 2-2 draw after extra time.
In the nail-biting match in Frankfurt, Japan came from behind twice. Miyama denied Alex Morgan's opener with a strike in the 81st minute, while Sawa rescued Japan by turning in a Miyama corner in the 118th minute to cancel Abby Wamback's 104th-minute goal. Shortly before the final whistle, Japan were reduced to 10 players when defender Azusa Iwashimizu was sent off.
But Japan goalkeeper Ayumi Kaihori, who was named Player of the Match, stopped two shots by the Americans, who also sent one shot over the bar, while three out of four Japan kickers converted their shots.
Sawa was the top scorer in the competition with five goals and added to the celebrations by being named Player of the Tournament.
A month later, the Nadeshiko Japan players got together to prepare for the Asian final-round qualifying tournament for the 2012 Olympics.
It was a tough task for the national team players – who had had little time to rest after the World Cup – with the schedule showing five games in 11 days.
But the Japanese ladies responded well, winning the six-team qualifying tournament in Jinan, China, with four wins and a draw.
Japan downed Thailand 3-0 on September 1, beat Korea Republic 2-1 on September 3 and won 1-0 over Australia on September 5, before drawing 1-1 with DPR Korea on September 8. The draw, coupled with Australia's 1-0 loss to China, secured the Nadeshiko's berth in the 2012 Summer Games. Japan then beat hosts China 1-0 in their final match on September 11.
Aiming for Olympic gold
Japan will be making their third straight Olympic appearance and fourth overall in London next summer, but this time they'll be there as world champions and will be gunning for Olympic gold. Japan's women footballers have never won an Olympic medal, but came agonizingly close at the 2008 Games in Beijing, where they finished fourth.
In Beijing, Japan started off with a 2-2 draw against New Zealand before losing 1-0 to the United States. The Japanese women then made a convincing return to form in their third match, beating Norway 5-1 and reaching the last eight.
Japan continued their good form in the quarterfinals, beating hosts China 2-0 to advance to the semifinals for the first time.
But in the semis, they fell 4-2 to the United States, who went on to win the gold medal. Japan then lost the third-place playoff 2-0 to world champions Germany.
The road to glory
As they aimed for glory in 2011 and looked forward to 2012, the Nadeshiko had a tough schedule.
In January, they won the Bicenntenial Women's Cup in Chile after beating Denmark 1-0 and drawing 1-1 with the hosts, before beating Colombia 4-2 and Argentina 3-0.
The Nadeshiko went on to retain their East Asian crown in Tokyo the following month with three straight wins (2-0 against
China, 3-0 over Chinese Taipei and 2-1 against Korea Republic) before heading to China for the Women's Asian Cup, which also served as a qualifying tournament for the World Cup.
Looking ahead to the 2011 World Cup, the Japanese women's side took part in the Algarve Cup in Portugal in March, finishing third behind the United States and Iceland.
Japan's younger generation had a slightly tougher time on the world stage. In July/August 2010, Japan competed in the FIFA Under-20 Women's World Cup in Germany, but could only finish third in the group stage, one point behind Mexico and Nigeria. A month later, the Japanese Under-17 team had better luck, finishing as runners-up in the FIFA Under-17 Women's World Cup after losing to Korea Republic 5-4 on penalties following a 3-3 extra-time draw in the final.
However, those experiences helped the Japanese players develop their game. Mana Iwabuchi, Saki Kumagai and Megumi Takase moved up to the senior squad, while other youngsters such as Kumi Yokoyama and Mai Kyokawa led the way for the new generation.