As global interest in women’s football approaches fever pitch, former champions Japan are eyeing a return to glory with the country’s first professional league for female players.
A decade since winning the 2011 Women’s World Cup, Japan has fallen behind, even as the sport becomes more popular and lucrative elsewhere.
But the new league’s organisers hope it will bring prestige and fresh talent to Japanese clubs when it kicks off in September, tapping into growing enthusiasm across the region ahead of the 2023 World Cup in Australia and New Zealand.
“We had a sense of urgency, as we felt that Japan would be left behind globally if it didn’t go pro now,” said Kikuko Okajima, chair of the WE League, short for Women Empowerment.
“We’re in the middle of a pandemic, but we decided not to delay the tournament and to launch the pro-league,” she added
Japan is currently 10th in the FIFA women’s rankings, behind several European teams and the number-one US side, who were led to victory at the last World Cup by star winger Megan Rapinoe.
The national team nicknamed “Nadeshiko” after a pink flower that symbolises femininity in Japan won silver at the London 2012 Olympics but failed to qualify for Rio, and its chances of a medal this summer on home turf are slim.
Okajima says Japan’s clubs are finding it harder to keep up as teams in Europe and elsewhere go professional, meaning “the level of women’s football is rapidly rising”.
But players at Chifure AS Elfen Saitama, one of the WE League’s 11 inaugural clubs, see a bright future.
Goalkeeper Natsumi Asano, 23, called the league’s launch a “very important step”.
“I am hopeful, and I also feel responsible as a player” for the game’s success, she told AFP as her teammates practised headers and talked tactics at their training ground near Tokyo.