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Former champion Japan in search of new history at Women’s World Cup


Futoshi Ikeda guided Japan to the Women’s Under-20 World Cup title in 2018, and last year his team was the runner-up to Spain — reversing the outcome from the final four years earlier.

Ikeda has moved up to coach Japan in this year’s Women’s World Cup in Australia and New Zealand and, of course, some of his younger players are joining him on the big stage.

Much will be expected from fans of a team known as “Nadeshiko Japan.” The term derives from “Yamato Nadeshiko,” which has been used to describe Japanese feminine beauty.

Japan won the World Cup in 2011, was second in 2015 — both finals against the United States — but had a disappointing exit in the round of 16 four years ago.

“I told the players that they should fight hard in each and every game in front of them,” Ikeda said in an interview with The Associated Press. “But rather than feeling the pressure of having won the title 12 years ago, they should feel the joy of making new history on their own again and use that as motivation.”

At least three players from last year’s Under-20 squad will be keys this time: defender Rion Ishikawa, and 19-year-old forwards Aoba Fujino and Maika Hamano, who signed with Chelsea in January. About a dozen players on the squad were on the 2018 team or 2022 team and have followed Ikeda to the big time.

The backline will be anchored by captain Saki Kumagai, who is playing in her fourth World Cup. And leading the midfield will be Manchester City’s Yui Hasegawa.

Kumagai scored the winning penalty in a shootout when Japan beat the Americans 12 years ago for the title. She is the only player remaining from the 2011 squad, and the 32-year-old recently joined AS Roma from Bayern Munich.

Almost half of the 23-woman squad is made up players competing in leagues in Europe or North America. The rest are playing at home in Japan’s WE League. Clearly Japan — a traditional leader in women’s soccer — is trying to keep up as the game keeps expanding and improving.

“I believe that the speed of growth of women’s football in the world, including various environmental aspects, is developing at a tremendous momentum right now,” Ikeda said.

In addition to Hasegawa, some of the scoring punch is also likely to come from overseas-based players such as Angel City forward Jun Endo, Hina Sugita of the Portland Thorns, West Ham’s Honoka Hayashi, and Liverpool’s Fuka Nagano.

Endo is recovering from a left knee injury and is the easiest player to spot: she is the darting left-footer with the pink hair who has become a favorite in Los Angeles. People expect things to happen when she touches the ball, and she has promised to get a fresh hair coloring — still pink — for the World Cup.

“She is a player who is trying new things in search of her own development in the American league,” Ikeda said. “Her speed and strong, accurate kick with a solid left foot will be a plus for the team.”

Ayaka Yamashita is expected to get the start in goal.

Japan often faces a size deficit in many matches, but its technical level might be the best in the world.

“Of course it is important to develop athletic players who are fast and big,” Ikeda said. “However, physical ability is not just about being fast and big, it also includes agility, which I think is one of the strong points of Japanese players. So I want to take advantage of that strength that we have.”

Japan plays its Group C games in New Zealand, opening against Zambia at Hamilton on July 22, followed by Costa Rica on July 26 in Dunedin and Spain on July 31 in Wellington.

Japan, ranked No. 11 by FIFA, will be an overwhelming favorite against Zambia and Costa Rica. The game with No. 6-ranked Spain is likely to be for the top spot in the group.

“First of all, it’s the World Cup, so I don’t think the FIFA rankings and other such numbers are of any help,” Ikeda said. ” Above all, I think Zambia will be well-prepared for the first game of the tournament, so I think it will be important for us as well to be fully prepared for the first game.”

Reporting by The Associated Press.

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