Battling fatigue, Nadeshiko Japan decided to change tactics in its quest to qualify for the 2012 Olympics, a move that paid off for coach Norio Sasaki and his squad.
In the final round of Asian qualifying for the 2012 London Games women's soccer event, Nadeshiko Japan was able to claim its third consecutive ticket--and fourth overall--to the Olympics.
In the six weeks since winning the Women's World Cup in Germany, the team had barely any time to rest. One thing that helped get them through the fatigue and struggles was their pride as the world's No. 1 team. Another factor was a new game plan.
"It was physically rough from the first game," recalled midfielder Mizuho Sakaguchi, looking back at the final round of Asian Olympic qualifiers held earlier this month in China.
Sakaguchi played from the second game during this round, against South Korea, in what was a packed schedule. Even though she, like many of the team's stars, was rested for the first game against Thailand, Sakaguchi was not in top condition.
Coach Sasaki had sensed his players' poor condition during a training camp before the qualifiers in China. He tried to reduce the amount of practice time, but things didn't go the way he wanted. When he started training, he made a decision.
"We want to play realistically rather than ideally," he said.
Sasaki gave up on his team's trademark style of elegant passes, something Nadeshiko Japan had showcased in Germany during the World Cup. In the second half of the game against South Korea, Japan focused on defense. In the last 10 minutes or so against Australia, Japan insisted on keeping the ball instead of trying to score. The team slowly and steadily gained the points required to secure an Olympic ticket.
Nadeshiko Japan's experience against powerhouses like the United States and teams from Europe at the World Cup may have actually hindered them during the Asian qualifiers.
"Asian players are smaller and have good technique," said Sakaguchi. "We were beaten by Asian players in situations where we may not have been beaten by U.S. or European players."
Japan was able to endure some sustained pressure in its 1-0 win over Australia, a team similar to the United States or a European side featuring taller players, but it conceded goals to both South Korea and North Korea.
Against South Korea, Japan was able to remain calm after the Koreans tied it 1-1, scoring in first-half injury time for a 2-1 victory. In the match against North Korea, Japan was able to hang on despite a lack of good scoring opportunities, managing to get a 1-1 draw.
After five games, Japan's record stood at four wins and one draw.
"We have pride in the fact that we were able to defend against the world's best teams (at the World Cup), and even scored a few goals," defender Azusa Iwashimizu said, explaining how the team was able to maintain its concentration until the end. "That's what makes us different from other countries."
But these players are not the type to be satisfied by simply winning a ticket to the Olympics. They hope to reach the top again with a gold-medal performance and are determined to keep improving.
"Our strength is our ability to keep the ball moving," said defender Yukari Kinga. "But we also showed some weaknesses, too, where teams shut us down. Unless we increase our options, we won't be able to win at the Olympics."
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