Japan captain Saki Kumagai Photo: REUTERS file
soccer

Japan heads to France for women’s World Cup with one eye on Olympics

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By Jack Tarrant

Although Japan head to France for the women’s World Cup focused on the task at hand, it is only natural that Asako Takakura’s young team should have one eye on the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.

Excitement is building in Japan for the summer showpiece with the demand for home-grown medal winners increasing by the month.

Japan have become a powerhouse in the women’s game, ever since their momentous World Cup victory in Germany eight years ago.

That victory may have been a surprise but the emotions attached to the victory, which came months after the devastating 2011 earthquake and tsunami, mean the Nadeshiko hold a special place in the hearts of the Japanese people.

It has also raised expectations of what Takakura’s team can achieve on home soil at the Olympics.

“When I imagine Tokyo 2020, it is natural to feel the pressure when you are inside Japan because you hear a lot about it,” Takakura told Reuters via email. “But I believe that you can change that pressure into a positive strength."

Japan, fresh off the back of winning both the Asian Cup and the Asian Games gold medal in 2018, are building a young team with the Olympics in mind but also remain hopeful of causing another surprise in France.

“The aim is to win the tournament but we would like to concentrate on taking one step at a time,” said Takakura, who knows her team, with an average age of just 23, are still a work in progress. “I feel that the team has grown when we won even though we had some challenges. However, no one in this team is satisfied with where we are because we are a team that welcomes challenges rather than enjoying achievement. That is more valuable than winning.”

Captain Saki Kumagai is one of four players, along with Aya Sameshima, Rumi Utsugi and Mizuho Sakaguchi, to have over 100 caps in coach Asako Takakura’s squad.

However, whilst the World Cup winning squad of 2011 averaged over 52 caps each, this time around the average is less than 38 caps with 14 players aged 23 or younger.

Kumagai is excited by the influx of youth.

“Young players tend to have no fear,” Kumagai told Reuters via email. “We would like to create an environment where players could play freely. Age does not matter when you are on the pitch, so I am not worried about anything at all.”

The young players in the Japanese squad, many of whom play for dominant club side Nippon TV Beleza, will be looking to Kumagai for both her experience and her understanding of French soccer.

Kumagai has been playing for Lyon, winners of the last three Champions League titles, since 2013.

“It is the third World Cup for me; I think I know the atmosphere of the World Cup as we well as how difficult the first match could be,” said Kumagai, referring to Japan’s opener against Argentina on June 10.

“There are things you only can understand from your own experiences. At the same time I would like to play a leadership role. We are a young team but that could be a strength too. I think it is helpful that I can speak French and I know the local climate and food,” continued Kumagai. “It is almost like an extension of my normal life here, so I think it is very advantageous.”

Despite their relatively low ranking of seventh in the world, Japan will take great confidence from winning both the Asian Cup and the Asian Games gold medal in 2018.

Recent Friendlies

For the recent friendlies in Europe – a 3-1 loss to France and a 2-2 draw with Germany – Takakura chose to call on nine players from dominant Japanese outfit Nippon TV Beleza.

Beleza have won the last four L.League domestic titles and possess an exciting array of attacking talent who will be looking to catch the eye of big European clubs during the World Cup.

Talented midfielder Yui Hasegawa is the pick of the Beleza players and has already made 35 appearances for Japan at the age of 22.

Rikako Kobayashi, 21, is another in-form Beleza product who could form a deadly attacking partnership with Kumi Yokoyama, scorer of four goals during the Asian Cup triumph.

Midfielder Mizuho Sakaguchi, who has made over 120 appearances for Japan and won the L.League's MVP award three years running from 2015-2017 has been recovering from a knee injury leaving Takakura sweating over her fitness.

However, Takakura believes in her young players and wants them to grow during the tournament.

“It is true that they are young, but the ones who will be at the final selection will be strong,” assured Takakura. “I would like them to play with confidence... and I would like them to grow during the tournament. I want them to play to their maximum no matter what their ages are.”

Japan, ranked seventh in the world, have been drawn in Group D alongside Argentina, Scotland and England, who defeated Japan in the final of the SheBelieves Cup in March.

© (c) Copyright Thomson Reuters 2019.

©2019 GPlusMedia Inc.

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