How Japan is stuck between national team peaks and domestic troughs, with World Cup winner Megumi Takase

How Japan is stuck between national team peaks and domestic troughs, with World Cup winner Megumi Takase

KOBE IS A BUSY CITY. Of course, most cities are busy, but Kobe is busy in a way that seems to morph effortlessly from one version of itself to another, almost in the blink of an eye. It’s a place immersed in its own history, a beautiful city, a geographical location which can trace human habitation all the way back to the Jōmon period, an era which the Encyclopaedia Britannica contends occurred between 10,500 and 300BC.

Kobe is also a futuristic and vividly electrified city, and like so many others, it’s one with an excess of glass, light and steel stretching far into the sky. It also boasts its very own artificial and populated port island, where a thriving community exists, served by two universities no less. For everything that seems formulaic about Kobe, there is something completely unique to balance the overly familiar.

Tragedy has touched this city too. In January 1995, the Great Hanshin earthquake killed an estimated 6,500 people, with roughly 4,600 of those thought to be within Kobe itself. The aftermath left well over 200,000 homeless.

As a bustling seaport – Japan’s fourth busiest and amongst the top 50 busiest ports in the world – Kobe also has its share of sweeping motorways and flyovers, with all the associated gridlocked traffic you would expect in what is a commercial gateway to the world. From the departure lounge of the airport, you get to see the gargantuan container ships slowly roll in and out of the docks. It’s an ugly but hypnotic sight.

There at the kind invitation of Hummel, we’d taken one of those busy motorway junctions close to the docks, to find INAC Kobe Leonessa’s training facilities.

I’d never sat across a table from a World Cup-winning footballer before. Megumi Takase is about as unassuming as you could imagine a World Cup winner to be. Her reaction to questions about whether she feels like she’s a role model for Japanese girls tend to go as far as a slight tilt of her head, a barely perceptible curl of the corner of her mouth towards a possible smile, and a light shrug of the shoulders. You could describe Takase as enigmatic.

It isn’t that Takase is uninterested in the impact she could be making on children, and on society in general, but more that she isn’t overly convinced that she’s a role model or an inspiration at all. You get the feeling that the prospect of her making a difference seems an alien concept to her.

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Takase freely admits she was viewed as an anomaly as a child, when she was seen playing football with her brothers and her one and only sister. From her family at least, Takase was afforded plenty of encouragement to play football. She was blessed by the positive influences of home.

Conversely, to the idea that Takase is bewildered by the question of being an inspiration, she does note the increase in interest in women’s football in Japan beyond her nation winning the World Cup in Germany in 2011. There are now far more participants than there was before the finals, and prior to that tournament it was still seen as strange to be a female footballer in Japan. This phenomenon was swept away not only by 2011, but by the further achievements of the women’s national team beyond winning the World Cup.

Takase watched most of the 2011 World Cup from the substitutes bench, restricted to four minutes of action in the semi-final against Sweden, at the Waldstadion in Frankfurt, a venue which hosted five games from both the 1974 and 2006 men’s version of the tournament.

Four minutes of action in a World Cup semi-final. Four minutes of something truly remarkable that most us can only ever dream of. I sat across that table from Takase, and her teammate Ayu Nakada, at INAC’s training complex, with no small degree of awe. Nakada herself – a runner-up with Japan at the 2010 FIFA Under-17 World Cup and a semi-finalist two years later at the under-20 equivalent – came to the game through a home environment which encouraged her participation. Her father, a coach, and her older sisters all played too.

Japanese sporting passion burns at its brightest when it comes to the international stage. Club tribalism is slowly percolating but the majority of the Japanese public get their sporting kicks from their national teams, or from individuals who represent their nation in solo sporting endeavours. Within this, Takase sees two contrasting images of women’s football in Japan: a national team which has shared the final of the last two World Cup tournaments with the USA – as well as the Gold Medal Match at the 2012 Olympics at Wembley – offset by a domestic club game which battles to find a strong enough traction to truly take off.

Takase is fortunate, as at INAC she plays for a full-time football club. Playing football and training for football is her day job. Others aren’t so lucky. The women’s game in Japan is largely a part-time effort for most clubs and players. Additional careers are needed and, within this, the quality of some teams suffer.

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INAC aren’t one of those clubs, however, and their last league title was won in 2013, a success which marked the completion of a hat-trick of titles, while more recent glory has been achieved in the Empress’s Cup. INAC share the battle for domestic supremacy with Urawa Red Diamonds Ladies and Nippon TV Beleza.

Despite a fascinating three-way fight for honours and widespread notoriety for the national team, there is a conspicuous lack of television coverage of the top-flight of women’s football in Japan. INAC broadcast their own matches online, in the absence of a television deal.

INAC’s communications manager, Kaori Ueda, rounded out how challenging her task is when it comes to promoting them in the media. The loss of the television deal was damaging, and while media engagements increased rapidly after the 2011 World Cup, the spotlight rarely hits clubs outside the big three. INAC are turned to by media outlets when the need arises, but compared to other sports, written and broadcast content with regards to women’s football remains low.

As wider, more traditional avenues shrink, INAC sharpens its skills at self-projection. Ueda and her team utilise YouTube and Twitter effectively, not just on matchdays but with off-pitch content, inclusive of player profiles and news updates.

At a supporter level, the game in Japan seems just as conflicted. Hiroto Miyake runs FC Rokken, a shop which deals in club merchandise, making flags, selling match tickets and running events, which often include the presence of players, both past and present. It is an establishment which acts as a community centre of sorts.

Miyake opened the shop in December 2013, when he felt there was a lack of general communication when it came to women’s football, having himself stumbled across the sport almost a decade earlier when introduced to it by friends. He offers an interesting insight into the demographics of the support. Miyake contends that most of the people who walk through the door of his shop are male, although the gender split at games is around 50/50. He also asserts that while participation figures are continually rising, the spectator numbers have plateaued to a degree. INAC pull in crowds of up to 3,400 – and this is the higher bracket compared to other clubs.

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It is Miyake’s fear that the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo may also deliver a painful body-blow to the development of the women’s club game. Out of sight, out of mind is a running theme from everybody I spoke to when it comes to the domestic league. There is a general feeling that Japanese women’s club football needs an on-pitch hero. Previous big names have eventually been coaxed to Europe or North America, while the legendary Homare Sawa has left a gap in the sport which may never be filled.

Sawa, the winner of the 2011 Ballon d’Or and scorer of the late extra-time equaliser for Japan in the World Cup final that year, which forced the successful penalty shoot-out against the USA, played for her nation over 200 times. Miyake is holding out hope for a new Sawa.

Takase, however, points to the prospects of a greater drain of talent from the Japanese game. The football authorities in Japan subsidise players who play their football overseas. The idea of playing in other countries is attractive, particularly to play in America. This delivers a double-faceted cause and effect. As the club game weakens, the spotlight generated by Japanese players intensifies through their achievements with the national team and endeavours with foreign clubs. As this happens, there will always be new talent at the source. The gap between how the club game and the international game is embraced in Japan is very pronounced, however.

Yet the very things that worry Miyake about Tokyo 2020 could provide a second push for the club game. The interest which was garnered in the wake of 2011 wasn’t mirrored in 2015, when Japan again reached the final. Tokyo 2020 will bring what can be an overpowering Olympian sensation to the populous, which will also stretch to football. A successful tournament for the national team on home soil can create more momentum.

One year earlier there will be the 2019 Women’s World Cup in France, and by then it will be known if Japan have succeeded in their bid to host the 2023 finals. Takase missed out on the 2015 World Cup but it is not beyond her to be involved in France or at Tokyo 2020, or even at a possible Japan 2023. She remained enigmatic to the end of the interview, declaring that she didn’t see much changing in the future of Japanese club football, that on-pitch levels will rise but that conditions won’t.

Football fights for the attention of girls in Japan with volleyball, basketball and tennis, and Takase feels that the value of sport in her nation is not high enough to see dramatic sweeping improvements.

Takase perhaps doesn’t see herself as inspirational – she might not recognise the symbolism – but there are now more teams and more players in Japanese women’s football than there were before the 2011 World Cup. Impressionable children queue for her autograph, and who is to say that a new Sawa isn’t amongst them. Takase and her teammates are an inspiration whether they know it or not. 

By Steven Scragg  

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