When Japan Lost Its Crown, It Found a Reason to Start Over

So Japan has embarked on an ambitious project to increase accessibility for women as coaches, referees and players, including a stated goal of registering 300,000 female players by 2030. The results that Takakura is able to generate in this summer’s World Cup and next year’s Olympics no doubt will be vital toward reaching that goal.

“I’m kind of like a pioneer,” Takakura said. “I wish I can be a good pioneer.”

Since being hired as Japan’s coach in 2016, Takakura has brought 50 players into the national team pool, including a now 19-year-old forward, Jun Endo. The process got a boost, counterintuitively, from Japan’s failure to qualify for the 2016 Olympics only a year after reaching the World Cup final.

When Japan failed to qualify, the former national team star Homare Sawa, the 2011 World Cup winner considered Japan’s greatest player, questioned whether the team’s players had sufficient desire, saying, “I really wonder how many are out there on the pitch dying to win, giving it their all for their team.”

The rebuke gave Takakura cover to begin refreshing her roster.

“We used to have just the one group, and there’s a positive and negative side to it,” Takakura said of the decorated old guard. “They were a good group; however, they had been together for so long, they got a little bit tired of it.”

The foundation for Takakura’s renewal efforts was a youth development system and a Japanese culture that permits girls, from the age of 6 or 7, to practice four times a week, 52 weeks a year, often with and against boys, said Tom Byer, an American who has worked at the grassroots level of soccer in Japan for 30 years. By the time girls are 12, Byer said, it is not uncommon for them to play 100 games a year. The system produces young players of remarkable technical skill.

In 2014, Takakura led Japan to the under-17 World Cup title. Last year, Japan added the under-20 crown, becoming the only nation to win both women’s youth global championships and the senior World Cup.

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