“History of the Nadeshiko League” 14. “New Initiatives”
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.
Women’s football in Japan embarked on a new era of development in 2004, the year in which the nickname of “Nadeshiko Japan” entered the national vernacular. The Japan Women’s Football League, which since 1994 had been popularly called the “L. League”, changed its nickname to “Nadeshiko League” in September that year, reflecting its determination to lead the women’s game in Japan just as it was expanding its activities overseas. The women’s game adopted other bold initiatives at this time to make the most of this opportunity.
In 2005, the League hosted the Nadeshiko Super Cup as a curtain-raiser to the new season. This match between the previous year’s League champions and JFA Japan Women’s Football Championship (Empress’s Cup) winners was launched to commemorate the start of the new season. Modelled along the lines of the men’s Xerox Super Cup (match between the winners of the J. League and Emperor’s Cup), this was an ambitious game aimed at generating new topics and creating greater excitement than in the previous year ahead of the new season.
On April 3, 2005, Urawa Komaba Stadium in Saitama City was blessed with fine weather. The match pitted Urawa Reds Ladies against Nippon TV Beleza, and both teams received pre-match encouragement from Hisako, Princess Takamodo, the Honorary Patron of the Japan Football Association. Saitama Reinas FC, the L. League champions in the previous 2004 season, had been transferred to the J. League Urawa Reds organization before the new season and was playing its first match as Urawa Reds Ladies.
The Reds raised their game for the match. While sharply defending against the Beleza offense led by the league’s leading forwards such as Homare Sawa and Yuki Nagasato, the Reds took a 2-0 lead with goals coming in the 34th and 65th minutes. However, Beleza, who were determined to recapture their crown as champions, did not give up and quickly got a goal back through Shinobu Ohno in the 67th minute, and Ohno then took a pass from Sawa to equalize in the 71st minute. The match ended 2-2 and went to a penalty shootout, in which the Beleza goalkeeper Shiho Onodera performed heroics and helped her team run out as 5-3 winners. This exciting game captivated the 2,948 spectators who had turned out to watch.
This year’s Nadeshiko League comprised eight teams in Division 1 (still called L1) and seven teams in Division 2 (L2). The number of games in L1 was greatly increased to 21 with teams playing each other three times in a round robin format that hadn’t been possible in the previous season due to the scheduling of Nadeshiko Japan’s games.
In June of this year, the big matchup between Beleza and Urawa Reds was conducted with fans charged admission on an experimental basis.
During the L. League era, admission had been charged for entry to see games, however, all charges were abolished from the 2000 season when the League was fighting for its survival. At this time, clubs were permitted to play games on practice grounds and the like rather than stadiums. However, as attention once more came to be directed towards the league, it became necessary for games to be played in stadiums with fans paying admission once more.
The said game was played on June 26. The venue was Hitachinaka City General Sports Park in Ibaraki Prefecture, which was a little far to travel for the supporters of both teams. Even so, the fact that 1,095 fans paid the price of admission (700 yen for tickets sold in advance, 800 yen on the day) to watch the game was highly encouraging for league officials.
The league title in the 2005 season was contested between Beleza and TASAKI Perule FC. In the twentieth round of games that season, Beleza hosted TEPCO Women’s Football Club Mareeze at the Nishigaoka Football Stadium in Tokyo. Mareeze, which had its base at J. Village in Fukushima Prefecture, had only just been founded following the transfer of the YKK AP Tohoku Ladies SC Flappers team that had played in L1 up to the previous year, however, led by ace player Karina Maruyama, it had contested the top positions from its inaugural season.
On this day, Beleza was crowned as champions without kicking a ball when second-placed TASAKI lost to Iga FC in an early match, and Beleza celebrated by winning its own game 2-0 thanks to second-half goals from Sawa and Ohno. This was Beleza’s eighth league title in total and its first in three years.
In L2, new teams caused a major stir. INAC Kobe Leonessa (Hyogo Prefecture), which had only just joined the league in 2005, was the runaway champions with a record of 16 wins, one draw and one defeat out of 18 games. Amassing 87 points and conceding only 16 goals, it won promotion to the topflight L1 in its first year. The team was inspired by the Brazilian international player Pretinha, who had signed a professional contract, and Miwa Yonetsu, who was selected as the L2 MVP for that season. INAC’s L2 title success became the prelude to a new era in the women’s game.
Yoshiyuki Osumi (football journalist)