“History of the Nadeshiko League” 19. The Emergence of INAC Kobe
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.
Nadeshiko Japan’s victory in the 2011 FIFA Women’s World Cup generated massive interest in women’s football in Japan, and much of this interest was directed towards INAC Kobe Leonessa.
This is because INAC Kobe Leonessa accounted for seven members of the World Cup winning Nadeshiko Japan squad. Starting with midfielder Homare Sawa, the captain of Nadeshiko Japan, who was also the tournament’s top scorer and MVP, they were goalkeeper Ayumi Kaihori, who performed heroics in the penalty shootout with the United States, Yukari Kinga, who played every minute of every match as right side back, forward Naomi Kawasumi, who grew into Japan’s ace player by scoring two goals in the semi-final against Sweden, Shinobu Ohno, who scored against Mexico, and the young players defender Asuna Tanaka and forward Megumi Takase.
In this year’s Plenus Nadeshiko League, it had been scheduled to play the first nine games before the Women’s World Cup and the latter nine games following the World Cup, however, due to the impact of the Great East Japan Earthquake, 12 out of the 36 matches in the first stage were rearranged for after the World Cup. On July 24, just one week after the World Cup final, INAC Kobe played its first match that had been postponed against JEF United Ichihara Chiba Ladies.
The game was played at Home’s Stadium Kobe. Now called Noevir Stadium Kobe, this stadium was used as a venue for the 2002 FIFA World Cup. The match attracted an impressive attendance of 17,812. Moreover, in the next week’s match (third round of matches in that season) against Okayama Yunogo Belle held at Kobe Universiade Memorial Stadium, the attendance was 21,236, thanks in part to the fact that Okayama Yunogo Belle included midfielder Aya Miyama, who together with Sawa had driven the Nadeshiko attack at the World Cup.
In both these matches, Nadeshiko Japan players performed impressively. In the game against Ichihara Chiba Ladies, Ohno scored two goals to help Kobe run out 2-0 winners, while in the game against Okayama Yunogo Belle, Tanaka scored in a 3-1 win, much to the delight of the fans.
The “fever” didn’t end there. In the week after the Okayama Yunogo Belle match, on August 6, INAC Kobe travelled to Niigata to take on Albirex Niigata Ladies. The Albirex team included midfielder Mizuho Sakaguchi, who formed the midfield fulcrum with Sawa for Nadeshiko Japan, and the left-footed technician Megumi Kamionobe. The official attendance for this game was 24,546, which stands to this day as the highest attendance for a Nadeshiko League match. The game ended in a 2-1 victory for INAC Kobe, with Sawa scoring both goals for Kobe and Kamionobe replying for Niigata.
This game was part of a “double header” that also featured the J. League’s Albirex Niigata versus Shimizu S-Pulse, but various figures clearly indicate that the fans did not merely watch the Nadeshiko League match as something incidental to the J. League game. The official attendance for the match between Albirex Niigata and Shimizu S-Pulse was 37,830, which was full capacity. This was Albirex Niigata’s highest attendance of the season, and considering that its average attendance that year was 26,049, it may be gathered that more than 10,000 supporters were there to see the Nadeshiko players.
Meanwhile, INAC’s two home games were solo games. That year, Vissel Kobe of the J. League achieved its highest ever placing of ninth in J1 and attracted an average attendance of 13,223. This figure alone clearly indicates just how much popularity INAC Kobe had.
Having been founded in 2001, INAC Kobe Leonessa won the Hyogo Prefectural League Division 1 in 2003 and the Kansai League Division 1 in 2004, thereby gaining promotion to the Nadeshiko League Division 2 (L2) in 2005. That year, the team strengthened its ranks with the addition of two Brazil national team players – forward Pretinha and midfielder Rafaela. With Pretinha scoring 20 goals in 15 games, INAC stormed to the L2 championship and gained promotion to L1 in 2006.
Pretinha was born in 1975. Although she was 30 years old when she arrived in Kobe, she had played for the Brazil national team since the age of 16, having appeared in five Women’s World Cups and four Olympics up to the Beijing Olympics in 2008. She was already a “legend” of women’s football in Brazil. Although small in stature, she was fast and had finishing ability and starred for INAC Kobe until 2008.
After gaining promotion to Nadeshiko League Division 1, INAC Kobe continued to aggressively strengthen its squad and constantly maintained a high placing in the league. In 2010, it gained its first major title by winning the JFA Japan Women’s Football Championship (the current Empress’s Cup). Then, before the start of the 2011 season, it acquired three players – Sawa, Ohno and Kinga – from the “perennial champions” Nippon TV Beleza, as well as midfielder Ji Soyun, a member of the South Korea national team. In this way, Kobe became the favorite to win the championship. In these circumstances, many of the team’s players turned professional.
In spite of the great attention from Japanese society and excitement that enveloped the stadiums, INAC Kobe won the Nadeshiko League championship for the first time without losing a single game in 2011. It went on to win three consecutive championships with further victories in 2012 and 2013, and it also won the Empress’s Cup four years running up to 2013.
In contrast to Beleza, which had dominated the Nadeshiko League based on youth development, INAC Kobe took on the mantle of champions through pursuing professional team building. Without a doubt, this represented the arrival of a new era for women’s football in Japan.
Yoshiyuki Osumi (football journalist)