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Eyes on the goal: Women's football goes pro in Japan

Published : Sunday, 18 July, 2021 at 12:00 AM  Count : 287

This photo taken on March 31, 2021 shows Emi Yamamoto from Japan's women football team Chifure AS Elfen Saitama heading the ball during a training session in Hanno, Saitama prefecture. As global interest in women's football approaches fever pitch, former champions Japan are eyeing a return to glory with the country's first professional league for female players.	photo: AFP

This photo taken on March 31, 2021 shows Emi Yamamoto from Japan's women football team Chifure AS Elfen Saitama heading the ball during a training session in Hanno, Saitama prefecture. As global interest in women's football approaches fever pitch, former champions Japan are eyeing a return to glory with the country's first professional league for female players. photo: AFP

TOKYO, JULY 17: As global interest in women's football approaches fever pitch, former champions Japan are eyeing a return to glory with the country's first professional league for female players.
A decade since winning the 2011 Women's World Cup, Japan has fallen behind, even as the sport becomes more popular and lucrative elsewhere.
But the new league's organisers hope it will bring prestige and fresh talent to Japanese clubs when it kicks off in September, tapping into growing enthusiasm across the region ahead of the 2023 World Cup in Australia and New Zealand.
"We had a sense of urgency, as we felt that Japan would be left behind globally if it didn't go pro now," said Kikuko Okajima, chair of the WE League -- short for Women Empowerment.
"We're in the middle of a pandemic, but we decided not to delay the tournament and to launch the pro-league," she told AFP.
Japan is currently 10th in the FIFA women's rankings, behind several European teams and the number-one US side, who were led to victory at the last World Cup by star winger Megan Rapinoe.
The national team -- nicknamed "Nadeshiko" after a pink flower that symbolises femininity in Japan -- won silver at the London 2012 Olympics but failed to qualify for Rio, and its chances of a medal this summer on home turf are slim.
Okajima says Japan's clubs are finding it harder to keep up as teams in Europe and elsewhere go professional, meaning "the level of women's football is rapidly rising".
But players at Chifure AS Elfen Saitama, one of the WE League's 11 inaugural clubs, see a bright future.
Goalkeeper Natsumi Asano, 23, called the league's launch a "very important step".
"I am hopeful, and I also feel responsible as a player" for the game's success, she told AFP as her teammates practised headers and talked tactics at their training ground near Tokyo.
Female footballers aren't always recognised for their talents in Japan, Asano said, recalling her surprise when she was greeted with loud cheers at an under-17s match in the United States.
She hopes that will change as the league grows.
"If we can show we're just as great as men's football teams... there will be more sponsors and supporters," she said.
- 'A dream and a goal' -    
Okajima hopes to raise the profile of the sport in Japan and attract new fans, especially women in their teens and twenties.
Just 1,300 supporters on average turn up to games in the country's top semi-professional women's league, while a popular team in the US can draw a crowd of 20,000, she said.
And only 3.3 percent of registered Japanese players are women, with the number of female players staying roughly the same over the past 10 years.    -AFP




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