Women's soccer had long-struggled to find an audience in Japan, a fact that made the Japanese team's win against the United States' perennial juggernaut of a women's team at last July's Women's World Cup that much more significant. With the win, Japan had snapped a 26-game losing streak against the Americans and simultaneously bellowed that it was an athletic force to be reckoned with in international competition.
The New York Times recounts the long fight for legitimacy that women's soccer has had in order to attain even a tenuous level of prominence in Japan. Though the World Cup win was big for the Japanese women, — especially as it came in wake of the Fukushima disaster — the record attendance at Nadeshiko League (the women's league) games as well as international matches is always a losing streak away from evaporating. According to Tamotsu Suzuki, the coach of the women's team two decades past, the women, despite signing endorsement deals and reaching celebrity status in Japan and abroad, are in an ongoing process of firmly establishing their place on the domestic and international stages.
The players can't forget the enthusiasm of the national team. They have to keep playing hard, be polite and never give up. If they don't do things right, it will be the same as in the past.
The past, as it happens, wasn't very awesome. In the 90s, fan attendance was meager (to be counted in the hundreds) and players often had to borrow money to travel abroad with the national team (now, of course, they have the luxury of flying coach while their male counterparts fly business class). The women's league eventually fractured in 1998 after a decade during which Japan was mired in the economic doldrums. Though men's soccer continued to expand during those lean years, women's soccer became all but extinct.
If Japan wins Olympic gold, it will be the first women's team to ever hold World Cup and Olympic titles simultaneously, an achievement that would all but ensure that women's soccer digs into Japanese sports fans like one of those brain parasites featured on Discovery Health (except, not at all horrific or unpleasant). The team, however, has an arduous path to victory —it will face Sweden (ranked fourth) and Canada (seventh) in the first round. More likely than not, Brazil lurks in the knockout rounds, and, somewhere out in deeper water, the American team is looking to avenge its surprising World Cup loss. Though the Americans have paid due respect to the Japanese team, captain Aya Miyama thinks the U.S. team is confident in its supremacy. "I think the U.S. doesn't particularly think they lost to us yet," she says, "so we have to win a gold medal at the London Olympics."
Women in the U.S. have had the benefit of Title IX to boost female participation in sports. Japan has only recently opened some similar year-round training opportunities for women, meaning that, for the first time in its history, the Japanese women's team is training with the same intensity as its competitors. With Olympic competition just around the corner, an unlikely rivalry between America and Japan is set to become one of the more intriguing narratives of the 2012 Olympics.