“History of the Nadeshiko League” 21. Overcoming a Year of Hardship
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.
In the FIFA Women’s World Cup that was held in France from June to July 2019, Nadeshiko Japan lost 1-2 to the Netherlands in the round of 16. Following Nadeshiko Japan’s victory at the 2011 World Cup, women’s football became increasingly professionalized and the UEFA Women’s Champions League became more popular in Europe, and each country made rapid progress in strengthening their national teams.
Viewing the situation with alarm, the Japan Football Association concluded that, in order to compete with the rest of the world, Japan must also establish a professional league, and it established the “Women’s professional league preparation committee” headed by Norio Sasaki, the former coach of Nadeshiko Japan. A plan was formulated to launch a new league comprising professional teams separate from the Nadeshiko League in 2021. Accordingly, the Nadeshiko League, in its 32nd season since starting as the Japan Women’s Soccer League in 1989, came to have its final season as Japan’s “top league” for women’s football in 2020.
2020 was the year in which the long-awaited Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games were due to be staged. The Nadeshiko League was scheduled to start on March 21 and continue until November 14 with a number of interruptions planned so that Nadeshiko Japan could prepare for the Olympics.
However, the plans were thrown into disarray in February. COVID-19, which was confirmed as a mass infection for the first time in Wuhan, China the previous December, rapidly turned into a global pandemic. In Japan, too, there was a major commotion when hundreds of infections were confirmed on a cruise ship docked at Yokohama Port.
The J. League season started on February 21, however, just four days later, the postponement of games until March 15 was announced. This interruption eventually continued until the end of June.
In the Nadeshiko League, postponement of the first two rounds of games was announced on March 10; then, just two weeks later, it was decided to also postpone games in April. With Japan also experiencing a spread of infections from major urban centers, a state of emergency was declared in seven prefectures including Tokyo on April 7, and this was expanded to the entire country on April 16. It had already been decided to postpone the Olympics for one year on March 24, and activities came to a halt not only in all sports but also schools, companies and elsewhere.
While the state of emergency was in effect, teams could not train together, and players became isolated and had to train at home by themselves. The state of emergency eventually came to an end on May 25. For players who were used to spending most of the year together with teammates in the team sport of football, these two months were especially hard.
The Nadeshiko League eventually started on July 18, which was originally intended to be a break for the Olympic Games. Moreover, the first two rounds of games were played without any spectators. Entering August, from the third round of matches on, games were played with the number of spectators limited to prevent further infections.
In order to complete the league itinerary, this year’s Plenus Nadeshiko League Cup, which had been scheduled to be contested by teams from Division 1 and Division 2, was cancelled. The Plenus Challenge League was played as a round robin with teams playing each other two times instead of the originally scheduled three, while the playoffs, which were originally scheduled to be contested between teams in the higher, middle and lower placings, were only played between the two teams that finished in first place in the EAST and WEST groups and the two that finished second place.
Even in these circumstances, the players lived up to their “Nadeshiko” nickname and all the teams pulled together to perform at the highest level. Having spent tough times away from their teammates in isolation due to the pandemic, the players displayed the joy of being able to meet each other in training again through their play. Moreover, the “Nadeshiko qualities” of the players were enhanced by the feeling of gratitude that they had for the medical workers and others engaged in public services who continued to work in spite of the risk of infection.
In the 32nd season of the Nadeshiko League, in Division 1, Urawa Ladies finished far ahead of second-placed INAC Kobe, winning its fourth championship dating back to its Saitama Reinas FC days. The Division 2 title was won by Sfida Setagaya FC, staving off the close challenge of Chifure AS Elfen Saitama. In the Challenge League, JFA Academy Fukushima of the EAST beat Ange Violet Hiroshima of the WEST in the final to become champions.
The new professional league was officially announced in June of this year. It was called the WE LEAGUE and approval of its 11 member teams was announced on October 15. These included 10 Nadeshiko League clubs, among which was Nippon TV Tokyo Verdy Beleza, which had led the Nadeshiko League throughout its 32 years. The players and teams of the Nadeshiko League overcame this “year of hardship” by pulling together. A new adventure awaited all concerned.
Yoshiyuki Osumi (football journalist)