Despite not everyone's cup of o-cha (Japanese tea), soccer remains the world's most watched and played sport.
Soccer is also quite popular in Japan (though don't talk to my friend Mike Rogers about that), and with recent strides by the women's national soccer team—like winning the FIFA World Cup in 2011 against the heavily favored team from the United States of America, the popularity of the sport continues to surge.
Do you want proof? At the recent Algarve Cup tourney held in Portugal this past February, games were broadcast live in the middle of the night in Japan - and apparently people watched!
Despite losing to Germany in the finals, the Japanese woman's team is ranked Number 3 in the world (behind the U.S. and Germany, respectively). And excluding Mike Rogers, the country could not be happier.
Despite your author living in Toronto (affectionately known as Loserville North because we haven't won a major sport - excluding lacrosse - since the Blue Jays won back-to-back baseball World Series titles in 1992-1993. Oh god... don't even get me started on hockey!), he likes a winner.
The success of women's soccer (the Men's national team is either underachieving or simply not over-achieving or is playing at their appropriate level) has helped lift the spirits of a country, as it continues to recover and rebuild from the devastating earthquake and tsunami that struck the northeast sector of Japan on March 11, 2011.
After Japan won the World Cup in Germany, the sport received an impressive boost at home, with clubs in the national women’s league earning more sponsorships and news media exposure.
Some of the women’s clubs have even merged with men’s teams in the J-League (Takatuski with the men's Gamba; Sayama with the men's Omiya; and the men's Sendai, in the earthquake zone, absorbed players from the disbanded Tepco Mareeze club).
Heather O’Reilly, a veteran midfielder for the No. 1-ranked U.S. who played in her 10th Algarve Cup last month, said that after losing in the World Cup final to Japan in 2011, the American players “understood the grand picture.”
“The general feeling is that it wasn’t our time and it was Japan’s time,” O'Reilly opined during the Algarve Cup tourney. “There was much to be proud about in that Japan game, but it’s just one of those bizarre feelings. Maybe they were a little bit hungrier. Both teams have a lot of respect for each other.”
O’Reilly added: “It was two great teams facing off against each other. I think after the game, we were gutted and disappointed, but when you look at the grand picture of what that country had gone through, you couldn’t help but look at their team and have a lot of respect for them and how they inspired their country. I’m happy for them.”
Amen, Ms. O'Reilly.
That World Cup win—a surprise win, mind you—lifted many of the Japanese women to superstardom in Japan, and helped many gain high paying game positions with European teams.
Of course that meant that they had to be down first to rise up.
Part of that is because in Japan, women's sports are considered second-class.
Evidence of this is the fact that after the Men's National team did nothing as expected during the World Cup, the team flew home via First Class.
The women who surprised the world and inspired a nation - they flew Economy Class.
I'm not saying that the women should have flown First Class, but after the disasters, showing fiscal restraint would have been twice as nice if the spoiled men had followed suit. Or maybe treat the women as well as they treat the men - considering they are far more successful - and let them fly home as First Class citizens who inspired a nation!
I had previously coached women's soccer in Toronto for seven years, and coached the women's soccer at the college I attended. I know all about gender bias when it comes to how female athletes are treated relative to their male counterparts. We were always scrapping for usable fields and referees and linesmen. Of course, this was back in the 1980s and early 1990s... and people like my friend Rob Jones did a hell of a lot to help women's soccer in Canada grow. Hi Rob! And now, women's soccer in Canada has a lot more respect.
The same will happen in Japan. It already has, in fact (plane tickets notwithstanding).
Some of the women who parlayed a successful World Cup victory into a well-paying professional soccer gig include (surnames first): Kumagai Saki and Nagasato Yuki, on Potsdam of Germany; and Sameshina Aya on Montpellier of France. Sawa Homare and Miyama Aya, both of whom were friendly with the American players from their days playing in Women’s Professional Soccer in the United States, returned to Japan to much fame and adoration.
Now we just have to see if the Women's national soccer team can keep up the great gamesmenship first in the newly created Women's Kirin Challenge Cup between itself, Brazil (the number four team in the world), and the U.S on April 1-15, 2012 in Japan. You can read about that HERE. It's a tune-up for the teams heading into the London Olympics held between July 27 - August 12, 2012 (I will provide full coverage of every Japan game here - there, if someone can get me tickets. I was born in London, you know... I'd like to visit!).
Regardless - along with Japan hosting the 2012 FIFA Under-20 Women’s World Cup tourney on August 18 - September 8 (read my blog HERE) , it should be an exciting time for women's soccer and soccer fans!