Japan’s women soccer players kick off their quest for a rare double today as the first action of the London Olympics gets under way.
The Asian giants upset the established order of women’s soccer last year after stunning the heavily favored US to win the World Cup in Germany on penalties.
The Nadeshiko are now attempting to become only the second side in history to hold the World Cup and Olympic titles at the same time, but Japan, who face Canada in Coventry, England, in their opening Group F game, will be desperate to make a winning start after a troubled buildup, which has included defeats to France and the US.
A 2-0 loss to France in Paris last week ensured Japan’s preparations for the Olympics ended on a downbeat note following an earlier 4-1 thrashing by defending champions the US in last month.
The duel losses have reinforced the concerns aired by former coach Ryohei Suzuki that Japan’s women have taken their eye off the ball since landing last year’s World Cup, distracted by a new-found fame and celebrity.
Japan, who notched a fourth place finish in Beijing, will nevertheless fancy their chances of progressing from a group that also includes Sweden and South Africa, who also play in Coventry today.
“Looking back to the Beijing Olympics, we got to the top four, but we were the only team that couldn’t get a medal,” Japan coach Norio Sasaki said. “After Beijing, our objective was to get a medal in 2012 and, although we won the world championship last year in Germany, the objective has not changed. We really want to go for the gold medal.”
Meanwhile, the US launch their campaign with a tricky opener against fast-improving France, who they defeated in the semi-finals of last year’s World Cup.
US head coach Pia Sundhage revealed the US have been monitoring France ahead of their game in Glasgow, Scotland, sending scouts to watch their victory over Japan last week.
“We’ve been able to give enough information to our players so that they can prepare for that game,” Sundhage said in a recent conference call, revealing her side were focusing on France’s attacking threat. “Their strength is the attack. When they get comfortable with the ball in the attacking third they are unpredictable, so we need to stay tight, and our back four with the midfielders need to be compact and control the game by doing some good defending.”
Veteran US forward Abby Wambach, who scored the extra-time winner to clinch the gold in the 2004 Athens Olympic final against Brazil, said her teammates were determined to atone for the disappointment of losing last year’s World Cup final to Japan.
“There is no better motivation than losing in my opinion,” said Wambach, who missed the Beijing Games after suffering a broken leg on the eve of the tournament. “We did a lot of really cool things last summer in Germany and we got a lot of people excited about the women’s game again, and truthfully, throughout my career, I wasn’t sure it was going to happen. I believe this team has something to prove. I know that a lot of us are competitors through and through, I mean we’re competing when we’re playing ping pong on our team floor. Whatever it is, we want to win, and because we got so close and lost in the most dramatic way you can lose a soccer game, a soccer tournament, not to mention the World Cup, adds even more fuel to that fire.”