Japan head to France 2019 with one eye on Olympics
By Jack Tarrant
TOKYO, May 15 (Reuters) - Although Japan head to France for the women’s World Cup focussed 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.”
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. (Reporting by Jack Tarrant, editing by Julien Pretot)