‘Feelgood factor is back’: Nagasato rates Japan Women’s Olympics hopes

<span>Yuki Nagasato (No 10) plays for <a class="link " href="" data-i13n="sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link" data-ylk="slk:Japan;sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link;itc:0">Japan</a> against <a class="link " href="" data-i13n="sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link" data-ylk="slk:South Korea;sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link;itc:0">South Korea</a> in an Olympic qualifier in 2016.</span><span>Photograph: Koji Watanabe/Getty Images</span>

Yuki Nagasato has experienced it all with Japan. From the ecstatic World Cup-winning high of 2011 to the crushing disappointment of failing to qualify for the Rio 2016 Olympic Games.

The 36-year-old may not be part of the Nadeshiko setup any longer – although she continues to play for Houston Dash at club level – but she expects them to make an impact at the Olympics in Paris, which starts this month.

Nagasato left Japan at the age of 22 for fruitful spells with Turbine Potsdam, Chelsea, Eintracht Frankfurt and Chicago Red Stars before joining Houston. She was a mainstay of the golden era Japan side that triumphed at Germany 2011 and won silver at London 2012 before again reaching a World Cup final in Canada in 2015.

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She played her last game for the national team in 2016 and had to watch on as Japan struggled to maintain pace with the powerhouse nations of women’s football. However, Nagasato now keenly awaits Paris 2024, where several of her former national-team colleagues are out to right the wrongs of recent years.

“Last year’s World Cup went a long way in rekindling the nation’s love and support for the Nadeshiko. Heading into Paris 2024 I think expectations have risen as a result,” she says. “In Japan people get excited about the Olympics.”

The period between 2016 and 2021 is regarded as something of a dark age for the national team in Japan. It began with the failed Rio 2016 qualification campaign and came to a head with a limp showing at the home Olympics, where the Nadeshiko just got out of the group before being eliminated by their old adversaries Sweden in the quarter-finals.

“At that time the team was subject to a lot of media criticism,” Nagasato says. “I remember there was also a lot of negative articles circulating and certain decisions taken by the then manager [Asako Takakura], which put her firmly in the spotlight.”

The performance called for a change in leadership and the Japan Football Association parted ways with Takakura and tasked Futoshi Ikeda with the objective of steering the team towards more prosperous shores. Nagasato believes it was the starting point for their resurgence. “The managerial change was a major factor,” she says. “Little by little things started to improve and from what I hear the atmosphere in the camp has changed for the better. There appears to be a feelgood factor about the team that is really bringing the best out of the players.”

In Paris, Japan have been pitted in the group of death alongside Spain – the world champions – Brazil and Nigeria. A tall order on paper, but Nagasato is cautiously optimistic. “It’s a tough group but two third-placed teams go through so I think we should just about progress to the knockout rounds.”

It is worth noting that Japan cruised to an impressive 4-0 victory against Spain in the 2023 World Cup group stage and they have superior all-time head-to-head records against Brazil and Nigeria. Young players such as Feyenoord’s Toko Koga and Momoko Tanikawa will be making their first appearances at a major tournament, but the average squad age of 25.6 is a marginal increase on the 25 of Tokyo 2020. Moreover, 15 of the 18 squad members were also selected for last year’s World Cup squad so the team are gaining more experience by the year.

When pressed for a prediction Nagasato hinted at an improvement from the quarter-final finish at Tokyo 2020. “This time around the level of opponents is quite high so I am thinking the quarter-finals or semi-finals would be a reasonable expectation.”

More and more Japanese players are moving abroad, which is helping the national team, according to Nagasato. “I think the national-team players started to feel a gulf in standard emerge between the domestic game and the big leagues overseas,” she says. “So there are a lot of players who move out of Japan to improve their game as the playing environment is of a much higher standard.

“I made my move for similar reasons [in 2010]. When playing for Japan we regularly play against opponents who are far more physical and have better athletic ability. We can’t gain experience playing against such opposition in Japan so moving overseas allows us to level up. Being able to make more effective contributions to the national team was the original catalyst in my case.”

A club abroad is an opportunity for development while, in return, the player often offers a unique skill set. Manchester City’s Yui Hasegawa and Manchester United’s Hinata Miyazawa are examples of well-regarded exponents of the Japanese talent pool.

“Japanese players often excel in link-up play and game understanding,” Nagasato says. “They tend to find ways of breaking down opponents through passing combinations and synchronised movement, rather than individual creativity. They are also regularly praised for their defensive contributions and how they hold their defensive shape. This is something I hear a lot about, especially over in Europe.”

Nagasato’s illustrious career serves as an inspiration for Nadeshiko youngsters eager to hone their attributes against the world’s best. As Japan strives to maintain pace with the top sides of the women’s game, we can expect more players to follow in her footsteps. How far the current crop manages to go in Paris remains to be seen.

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