A little less than a year after their 5-2 loss to USA in the FIFA Women's World Cup Canada 2015™ Final, Japan will have a chance to gain a small dose of redemption when they meet the world champions in two matches over the coming week. While these two sides are old rivals - they have met a total of 35 times - things are looking quite different for Japan as they head into their latest match-ups against the Stars and Stripes.
In their last meeting at the global showpiece in Vancouver, Japan were the defending champions. They were coached by Norio Sasaki, who took Japan to their maiden world title at Germany 2011 with a penalty shoot-out victory against none other than USA. But now, 11 months on the Nadeshiko have found themselves struggling in their own region, after crashing out in March's continental qualifying for the Women’s Olympic Football Tournament Rio 2016. Sasaki stepped down in the wake of that failed campaign, and filling the void is Asako Takakura, a former midfielder of some renown who represented Japan at Atlanta 1996.
Japan, needless to say, enter the two matches against USA desperate to rebuild credibility. But for the new coach Takakura, playing against the world champions is more than just an opportunity to redeem themselves, as she told FIFA.com. "Of course, it is one of our initial goals to win the games," said the 48-year-old ahead of the matches in Commerce City on Thursday, and in Cleveland on Sunday. "But we are expecting more than just results. I want to see what our team can do and what they can't. It is my first game in charge and we play against the world's best team. I am excited about that."
Takakura's appointment came as no big surprise for those that closely follow Japanese football. As a player, she had been renowned for her creative talents with both Yomiuri-Seiyu Beleza and the national team. But Takakura is, perhaps, is better known for coaching a series of youth national teams following her retirement. Notably, Takakura helped Japan become world champions at the FIFA U-17 Women's World Cup Costa Rica 2014, a milestone achievement which earned her that year's AFC Woman’s Coach of the Year award.
"Winning the FIFA U-17 World Cup was a launching pad for me to step up to the next stage," she said. "I hope my past experiences at the different age group levels can help with the Nadeshiko's rebuilding process. It's an honour (to become the head coach) for me. But I am fully aware that this is no easy job. I have a strong sense of great responsibility. But I am expecting the team to make good progress (during my tenure)."
Playing to strengths
For many, Japan, now seventh in the FIFA/Coca-Cola Women’s World Ranking, have their work cut out if they are to return to the global summit. But Takakura voiced her optimism by announcing that Japan can lead the world through their style of play. "I want my team to adopt a style tailor-made for Japanese players," she explained. "Playing in such a style requires high-level techniques, systematic unity, and combination. These are the three elements in which our major strengths lay. Japan teams have worked in these fields since I was a player. I believe with this style, our team can lead the world in a different way from other teams."
Of course, Takakura's confidence is not unfounded considering Japan's outstanding showings on the international stage over recent years. The physically smaller Nadeshiko players have deftly dealt with stronger European and North American rivals over recent years, and Takakura says her side must continue to play to their strengths.
"Our team work and co-operation can make up for any physical weaknesses," said the newly-appointed coach. "Japanese players are quick-minded - they immediately think about what to do next, while either running for the ball or competing against a rival player."
Having reached the final at Germany 2011 and Canada 2015, as well as London 2012, Japan's failure to qualify for Rio 2016 was a significant disappointment. For Takakura, her immediate priority is restoring the team's self-esteem. "The players have to get their confidence back,” she said. “They should believe in themselves. The Nadeshiko may have failed to qualify for the Olympic Games, but as a team we should keep moving forward.
"Coaching the senior side should be largely different (from managing youth teams). The players need more communication. From my side, I have high demands in every element, such as techniques, tactics, pace, fitness as well as reading of games. I want to discover fresh talents for the team and I hope to continue to develop our style of play. But I will just focus on one thing at a time.”