“History of the Nadeshiko League”8. “Exploits of World Class Stars”
From the time when it was still unusual for women to play football, through to the birth of the Japan Women’s Football League, victory in the Women’s World Cup, and creation of the Japan Women’s Empowerment Professional Football League, social conditions and the environment surrounding girls’ and women’s football have undergone great changes.
We intend to publish a series of 22 articles before the end of the year in which we will look back over the tempestuous history of girls’ and women’s football in Japan.
The L. League (the current Nadeshiko League) was on the verge of collapse at the end of the 1990s. Having won three league championships in a row, Nikko Securities Dream Ladies was dissolved, and Fujita Soccer Club Mercury, Suzuyo Shimizu FC Lovely Ladies and Shiroki FC Serena also left the league. With the disappearance of four out of 10 teams at a single stroke, the league was plunged into crisis.
However, in this article, I want to discuss the overseas players who played during the “boom years” that had continued up to that point.
In the men’s Japan Football League, the second generation Japanese Brazilian player Nelson Yoshimura caused a big stir when he joined Yanmar in 1967. In the 1970s, players such as Sergio Echigo (Fujita) and Ruy Ramos (Yomiuri Club), who were to have a major impact on Japanese football, arrived from Brazil. Entering the 1980s, players of various nationalities came to Japan, and when the registration of professional players was permitted in the latter part of the 1980s, there was an influx of international class players from powerhouse nations. This was the backdrop when the Japan Women’s Football League was renamed as the L. League in 1994.
Shimizu FC, which had many young players and was a member of the league from its inaugural season in 1989, reinforced its squad with the addition of the Chinese Taipei (Taiwan) forward Chou Tai-ying just before the start of the season. Chou Tai-ying scored 12 goals to become the inaugural league’s top scorer and lead Shimizu FC to the title.
Following these exploits, a succession of overseas players joined the league during the 1990s. Shimizu strengthened its ranks with the addition of Shieh Su-Jean and Hsu Chia-Cheng who, together with Chou Tai-ying, became the “Chinese Taipei trio”. Fujita, which was promoted to the league in 1991, acquired the American national team goalkeeper Gretcehn Gegg, while championship contender Prima Ham FC Kunoichi recruited the Chinese national team players, midfielder Li Xiufu and forward TO JUHON. Li Xiufu later became the team’s manager.
However, the biggest surprise in not only the women’s league but the overall Japanese football scene was the announcement made by newly promoted Nikko Securities in its second season in 1992. This was the recruitment of the of the Norwegian national team players, forward Linda Medalen and defender Gunn Nyborg. Norway had finished as runners-up at the first FIFA Women’s World Cup in the previous year, and Medalen was a “world-class” star who had finished third in the World Cup scoring rankings with six goals and had been voted the third most valuable player in the World Cup.
In six seasons as a Nikko Securities player up to 1997, Medalen was top scorer two times and was voted MVP on one occasion. In 1996, she scored a record-breaking 29 goals in 18 games. Combining outstanding speed and shooting prowess, she was also a team leader with strong mentality. Gunn Nyborg was a defender when she played for the Norway national team, however, she played as a midfielder for Nikko Securities and had the most goal assists in 1994.
Nikko Securities also acquired the Norwegian national team players, forward Hege Riise and midfielder Agnete Carlsen, and won three championships in succession.
Canadian national team players also arrived in Japan. Fujita acquired the forward Carrie Serwetnyk in 1992, while Prima Ham acquired forward Charmaine Hooper in 1994. Combining power with speed, Hooper became the league’s top scorer (27 goals) and was voted MVP in helping Prima Ham to its first championship in 1995.
Immediately prior to the “crisis” years, the Japan Women’s Football League attracted the world’s star players in the same way as Italy’s “Serie A” did in men’s football. At that time, the environment surrounding women’s football teams around the world was not good, for example, national team players in the United States didn’t have an environment that allowed them to play regularly. It wasn’t until 2000 that the first women’s professional football league was founded in the United States.
In these circumstances, the Japan Women’s Football League, which was supported by large corporations, enabled players to focus on football in a good environment with housing and employment guaranteed, dedicated training facilities provided and guidance offered by professional coaches. It was only natural that world-class players aspired to playing in Japan.
The situation changed greatly after 1998, however, it should not be forgotten that the history of the Nadeshiko League included such a glittering age.
Yoshiyuki Osumi (football journalist)