2011 was a bleak year for Japan. The March earthquake and tsunami devastated the northern region of Sendai, causing significant loss of life, severe economic damage and untold human misery. While sport may seem comparatively insignificant, a very small ray of light appeared for the Japanese on 17 July 2011, when Japan beat the United States to win the Women’s World Cup.
The size of the upset cannot be overstated. In 22 prior matches, the USA had never lost to Japan.
The Japanese had only made it past the group stage of the tournament once before – in 1995, when they lost in the quarter-finals. The USA, on the other hand, had already lifted the trophy twice – and bagged three Olympic gold medals.
When the USA penetrated the determined Japanese defence in the 69th minute, it seemed the USWNT would be adding a third star to their crest. But somehow, Aya Miyama found a late equaliser. Abby Wambach put the Americans ahead in extra-time and the Japanese insurrection appeared to have been quelled again.
When Homare Sawa found a miraculous 117th-minute goal, surely – thought most observers – the more experienced US would clinch the victory on penalties. Yet when first Shannon Boxx, then Carlie Lloyd and then Tobin Heath each missed their penalties, the impossible became possible.
Triumph at the 2011 Women’s World Cup sparked a golden era for Japanese football. The Nadeshiko, as they are known, went on to secure the silver medal at the 2012 Olympics, again reach the final at the 2015 World Cup (on that occasion losing to the USA in the final) and win consecutive Women’s Asian Cup. These admirable senior team performances were complemented by glory at the U17 World Cup in 2014 and the U20 World Cup in 2018.
And yet, for all those recent achievements, the Japanese travelled to France for the 2019 Women’s World Cup with very few plaudits.
Despite being ranked seventh in the world, just below Australia and Canada and above the Netherlands, it was those teams that were being lauded as potential dark horses to challenge heavyweights the USA and Germany – not Japan.
Their match on Monday with Argentina – who hadn’t qualified for a World Cup in a decade – gave a few hints why. Despite being a faster and technical superior team, the Japanese struggled to break-down a compact Argentine defence.
Lacking a key creative dynamo in the midfield, Japan played too many safe passes and made too few attempts at dangerous passes. The goalless draw was just desserts for a team who never really looked like scoring.
That does not make them easy beats for Scotland (who they face on Friday) nor England (who they meet next Wednesday). Japan are resolute in defence – Argentina did not look like scoring, either.
But, both British teams will sleep easier after watching this match. The Japan of 2011 and 2015 is no longer.
While the transition to a team filled with last year’s U20 World Cup winners may reinvigorate the Nadeshiko in due course, on Monday’s evidence they will not be reaching their third consecutive World Cup final.
Briseadh croí don Astráil san nóiméad deireanach. Bonansea le cúl don Iodáil. #FIFAWWC
— Spórt TG4 (@SportTG4) June 9, 2019
Around the grounds
World number six Australia were shocked by Italy on Sunday, with a final-minute goal to Le Azzurre giving the Italians a win in their first appearance at the Women’s World Cup in two decades.
Australia’s Matildas were caught out on several occasions by a rejigged defensive system, deploying – as The Guardian quipped – “a defensive line almost as high as Everest”. Australia face Brazil next – where they need a win to keep their hopes of topping the Group C alive.
Norway were once the team to fear in women’s football: they won the Women’s World Cup and Olympics during a golden period in the 1990s. But the Grasshoppers (a rather un-intimating nickname…) have been in a downward spiral ever since. That might be about to change. Even without star Ada Hegerberg (who is boycotting the tournament), the Norwegians thrashed Nigeria on Saturday in Reims without getting into second gear. Is this the second coming for Norway?
Spain are a team on the rise, thanks partly to significantly increased investment from the major Spanish clubs in women’s football. This is only their second World Cup; they went out of the group stage in Canada in 2015. But, a quarter-final appearance at the Euros two years ago gives reason for optimism, as does a 3-1 victory over South Africa on Saturday.
They also deserve kudos for their creativity – finding an ingenious way to circumvent FIFA’s new free-kick interference rule.
Defending champions the United States begin their campaign on Tuesday evening against Thailand.
The Americans are heavy, heavy favourites, but for the upset merchants out there, a Chaba Kaew win are 100/1. It would be an upset for the ages, but stranger things have happened in football.
The two form teams from early action, France and Norway, square off on Wednesday night. The French may have home advantage, but the Norwegians look great value to win at 8/1 – the Grasshoppers looked impressive against Nigeria, and all the mental pressure is on France.
The Aussies will be desperate for a win against Brazil in Montpellier on Thursday, to keep their tournament hopes alive. That result is paying Evens and might be worth a punt.
* All odds correct at time of posting and may vary up to kick-off.