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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC

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High Hopes for Nadeshiko Japan

Jun. 9, 2015

The 2015 Women’s World Cup is underway in Canada and defending champions Japan are off to a winning start with a 1-0 victory in their opening match against Switzerland. Hopes are high for the Japanese women whose rise to the top has not always been smooth. They have fought hard to get where they are, and now they have fans’ hopes and dreams resting on their shoulders.

The team’s first match was broadcast live at midday during the workweek, and supporters gathered across Japan to cheer on their team. Japan is ranked 4th in the world, while Switzerland, in its tournament debut, is 19th.

Japan was on attack from the start and in the 17th minute, striker Yuki Ogimi came close to scoring. Nine minutes later, striker Kozue Ando collided with the Swiss goalkeeper inside the box and Japan was awarded a penalty kick. Midfielder and captain, Aya Miyama, converted to give Japan a 1-0 lead.

In the second half, Switzerland pushed for an equalizer, but the Japanese defense would not allow a goal. Japan tried to add to its lead when striker Yuika Sugasawa, who came on to replace Ando, hit the post with an angled shot in the 67th minute. Switzerland almost scored in stoppage time. Ramona Bachmann sent a blast over the crossbar, but Japan held on to win 1-0.

“We could not execute the game plan we had, but it was great that we got 3 points,” captain Aya Miyama said after the match. The team’s coach Norio Sasaki said Japan “could not show our style, but we would like to apply what we learned from this game to the next match.”

Fans in Japan are hoping the team will go on as they have started, building momentum with each match. If they make it to the knockout stage, they will likely be up against the world’s top three: Germany, France and the US.

The seeds of success were sown for the Japanese team back in 1989 with the launch of a domestic women’s soccer league. But it was a struggle as women’s soccer battled for popularity and sponsorship dollars, and the league lost company-sponsored teams during times of financial difficulty.

The tide turned in 2004 and the national team was named Nadeshiko Japan, after an expression about the strength and beauty of Japanese women. The team advanced to the last 8 at the Athens Olympics and the international achievement thrust Japanese women’s soccer into the spotlight at home.

The national league was renamed the Nadeshiko League, boosting its popularity, and in 2007, Norio Sasaki became the squad’s head coach. He established a playing style based on quick passing and systematic defense. At the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the team continued its winning ways on the world stage and came 4th.

Despite international success, national league players still struggle to make ends meet. While the men’s league is professional, many female players are amateurs who juggle training and work. The players often find grassroots support from local fans, and teams are closely associated with their communities. Volunteer residents tend the teams’ grounds by curating fields and making repairs, and bringing food and refreshments during matches.

It was at the 2011 Women’s World Cup in Germany that Nadeshiko Japan cleared a number of hurdles to emerge as champions. People back home erupted in joy as if the victory was their own. The team received the People’s Honor Award from the government and was more popular than ever.