Look beyond the men’s game to discover another strong league set-up, talented players and an exciting scene backed by passionate supporters
Date: Thursday, March 21st, 2019
Location: Urawa, Saitama
Venue: Urawa Komaba Stadium
Match: Urawa Reds Ladies versus AC Nagano Parceiro (Nadeshiko League 1)
It’s the first day of spring. The vernal equinox. And the sun is shining, its warmth teasing out the first cherry blossom of the season. To celebrate the occasion, today is a national holiday. Families and friends are out in force, packing on to trains and getting outside. And in a corner of Saitama city, Urawa Reds are at home.
But I’m not heading to Saitama Stadium 2002. This game is taking place at the smaller Komaba Stadium. And I won’t be seeing Tomoaki Makino & Co in action.
Today is the Nadeshiko League season opener. And on this bright March day, it’s time for the women’s game to shine.
A new beginning
Spring is the time for a fresh start. In Japan, it’s the beginning of the academic year. Students pose for photographs under soft pink explosions of cherry blossom during university entry ceremonies. Companies welcome in eager, fresh-faced new employees as the cold darkness of the winter begins to fade.
It seems a fitting time for a new football experience: my first ever women’s football game.
I’m disappointed that it’s taken me so long to get to a match. But I imagine it’s a fairly common scenario. The men’s game is so all-encompassing. It dominates the airwaves, fills the newspaper columns and clogs up social media feeds.
And it only takes a brief glimpse of the online world to see the attitude many have of women’s football.
Tweets or Facebook posts about the game are commonly met with howls of “I don’t care!” or “Why are you reporting this?!”.
This barely disguised misogyny that expresses itself as a torrent of abuse is grimly predictable and a sad indictment of where we are as a society. If the thought of women playing football is so appalling to the angry people behind keyboards, then the problem is with them, not the sport or its athletes.
But this negative image of women’s football creeps into wider society. Whereas the men’s game is lapped up with ever-increasing thirst, the women’s game has to try twice as hard to get just a fraction of the attention.
And when it does get some airtime, it’s shot down or derided. If it’s not the people saying they don’t care, it’s others claiming women’s football is “boring”, “slow” and “low quality”.
But is it? There’s only one way to answer that question, and that’s to watch the game.
And that’s what I’ll soon be doing. On this perfect early-spring day in sun-soaked Saitama city, where a top-flight women’s football game will soon be getting underway.
Japan seems like the perfect place to experience this side of the game for the first time. Women’s football is well-established here, with a strong domestic league structure.
Today’s match between Urawa Reds Ladies and AC Nagano Parceiro Ladies is part of the first round of fixtures in the 2019 Nadeshiko League 1 campaign. The top-flight of women’s football in Japan features ten teams, and Urawa Reds Ladies were last champions in 2014. But the current team to beat is Nippon TV Beleza, the women’s team of Tokyo Verdy, who’ve won the last four titles.
Beneath the top flight, Nadeshiko League 2 has another ten teams, and below that is the Challenge League, which is split into West and East divisions.
And this isn’t to mention the success of the national team, which has done more than its fair share for the growth of the game.
Japan won the biggest prize of all back in 2011, lifting the Women’s World Cup. And that’s not all. Nadeshiko Japan are two-time Asian Cup champions (2014, 2018) and two-time Asian Game winners (2010, 2018).
The next chance to add more silverware will be this summer in France for the 2019 Women’s World Cup. Japan are in Group D with Argentina, England and Scotland.
A great place in Tokyo to learn more about the history of women’s football is the Japan Football Museum.
Here you can find out about the early days of the game in the country, see some incredible artwork promoting the league, and catch a glimpse of the 2011 World Cup winner’s trophy. There’s a lot to be celebrated.
A new beginning
There’s nothing like a season-opener. Anything is possible before a ball has been kicked, before new signings have been assessed and before previously unsung heroines have made names for themselves.
And that sense of excitement is evident among the fans milling about before kick off.
A sweeping white grandstand emblazoned with the Urawa Reds crest makes for an impressive introduction to Komaba Stadium.
This is the heart of suburban Urawa, and red-shirted fans emerge from side streets lined by houses, joining early arrivers basking in the early-afternoon warmth.
I pick up a ticket at the gate. It only costs ¥1,000 (£6.90, $9) to watch Urawa Reds Ladies, less than half the price of the cheapest ticket to watch the men’s team (¥2,100). But will the experience match up?
There are plenty of home fans enjoying the sun in the main stand. It’s great to see many decked-out in official Urawa Reds Ladies’ shirts, but also promising that many are wearing the men’s team’s kit. If your club has a women’s side, it’s a two-for-one supporting situation.
There’s a pocket of enthusiastic Reds fans already making noise before kick-off. They have flags, scarves and the energy provided by a sunny opening day of the season.
It’s a slightly different crowd compared to J.League games. There are more women and families, which is to be expected. But it’s also a national holiday, which tends to bring in a different bunch.
But everyone in attendance is about to be treated to an entertaining first game of the season.
Quality shines through
It’s a cagey first half, with both teams looking a bit rusty. But there’s a breakthrough just before half-time for the home side.
Just outside the area, Kozue Ando chips the ball to Yuki Mizutani, who back-heels it into the path of Chinatsu Kira. Her deflected shot is parried by the goalkeeper, leaving Yuika Sugasawa with an easy tap-in.
It’s a deserved half-time lead for the hosts, and they emerge for the second-half looking determined to extend their lead.
Only ten minutes after the break and they duly go 2-0 up. And it’s something special.
Full-back Kana Osafune launches a ball from the right wing towards Yuki Mizutani. She takes one touch to lose two Parceiro defenders before lobbing the ball over the goalkeeper from the edge of the area. Not a bad way to mark your debut.
Mizutani is a new signing from Tskuba University’s women’s team. It’s a sign of the strength in depth of women’s football in Japan to see a player of such ability make an instant impact.
But the visitors don’t make it easy for Urawa. Akari Kurishima is dispossessed just inside her own half. Kumi Yokoyama drives at the Reds defence before sliding a pass through to Yuki Hazuka, who finishes smartly to pull a goal back with just over ten minutes to go.
Urawa hold on, though, and are the better team on the day. The fans sound their appreciation at full-time as the players do a lap of honour.
There’s also a nice moment when the visiting supporters chant “Urawa Reds” before the home fans return in kind with shouts of “AC Nagano Parceiro”. As the players make their way off the pitch, the 1,873 in attendance spill out into the long shadows of a fading afternoon.
A new world of football
It’s easy to be positive when the sun is shining. It doesn’t get much better than a warm spring day, a national holiday and a quality football match.
There’s no doubt that women’s football in Japan features some world-class players. Both Urawa Reds and AC Nagano Parceiro played some great football, and you’ll struggle to find many better examples of a perfectly-executed lob than Mizutani’s second-half strike.
But despite the positives, there are still hurdles to overcome for the game. An attendance of fewer than 2,000 people on a national holiday is disappointing for one of the league’s biggest teams.
In Europe recently, Juventus Women gave away free tickets and attracted a full-house of 39,000 fans for a game against Fiorentina at Allianz Arena. It was a record attendance for a women’s football game and shows there’s interest. And even if only one in four of those fans come back again as paying punters, it will have been a successful promotion.
Ticket prices are already low for Nadeshiko League games in Japan, so initiatives like free tickets for certain games may be the boost needed to bring in more fans on a regular basis.
And once football supporters see the game with their own eyes, they can form their own opinions. Those who enjoy the sport will grow in numbers, and sooner or later will start to drown out the negative whining of the prejudiced naysayers.
So get people through the stadium turnstiles. Let the players put on a show in front of a receptive audience. And watch the game grow. Because if the quality of the Nadeshiko League is anything to go by, women’s football in Japan is more than worthy of an equal place alongside the men’s game.