When Japan failed to qualify, the former national team star Homare Sawa, the 2011 World Cup winner considered Japan’s greatest player, questioned whether the team’s players had sufficient desire, saying, “I really wonder how many are out there on the pitch dying to win, giving it their all for their team.”
The rebuke gave Takakura cover to begin refreshing her roster.
“We used to have just the one group, and there’s a positive and negative side to it,” Takakura said of the decorated old guard. “They were a good group; however, they had been together for so long, they got a little bit tired of it.”
The foundation for Takakura’s renewal efforts was a youth development system and a Japanese culture that permits girls, from the age of 6 or 7, to practice four times a week, 52 weeks a year, often with and against boys, said Tom Byer, an American who has worked at the grassroots level of soccer in Japan for 30 years. By the time girls are 12, Byer said, it is not uncommon for them to play 100 games a year. The system produces young players of remarkable technical skill.
In 2014, Takakura led Japan to the under-17 World Cup title. Last year, Japan added the under-20 crown, becoming the only nation to win both women’s youth global championships and the senior World Cup.
In between, though, the 2015 World Cup ended with an embarrassing 5-2 defeat to the United States, which took a 4-0 lead in the 16th minute. Megan Rapinoe, the American wing, has spoken little about that match with her Japanese teammates on the Seattle Reign of the National Women’s Soccer League.
“As much as 2011 is a very sore subject and heartbreak for us, I’m sure they felt the same,” Rapinoe said.
Still, the World Cup arrives as the Japanese Football Association hopes to reap the harvest of an expanded youth scouting program, the placement of an academy team in its women’s league and the Super Girls Project, which has trained tall players to become goalkeepers, even if they previously played sports other than soccer.
“We set the example for young girls who play football and it’s important to win the World Cup,” Kumagai, the captain, told reporters in France.