INAC Kobe Leonessa, the current queens of the women’s Nadeshiko League, got off to a flying start to the 2012 campaign with a resounding 7-0 victory over Speranza FC Osaka Takatsuki in the season-opener April 15.
The Kobe club, which went undefeated to win the Nadeshiko League title in 2011, was playing one of five matches on opening day. Nearly 15,000 fans attended the April 15 matches.
The popularity of Women’s soccer has soared in Japan since the national team’s victory at the FIFA Women’s World Cup last summer. With Japan having qualified for this summer’s London Olympics, fan interest in the game is expected to grow even further.
INAC Kobe boasts seven members of Japan’s national team on its roster, including former captain and FIFA Women’s Player of the Year Homare Sawa. The team also signed a trio of promising 18-year-old rookies who will be the main force on Japan’s Under-20 team.
In the April 15 opener, one of those talented newcomers, Mai Kyokawa, tallied twice for the Leonessa in their 7-0 win. Kyokawa was named tournament MVP and was the top scorer in the Asian Football Confederation’s Women’s U-19 Championships last year. She was named to Japan’s national team for the first time in February.
Sawa sat out the opening game as she continues to recover from vertigo, but the veteran midfielder was set to play in the next match.
Kobe manager Kei Hoshikawa is, understandably, confident in his team.
“The quality of the team is even higher than last year,” he said. “The players are in great condition … I look forward to some good performances.”
Captain Shinobu Ohno also likes her team’s chances this season.
“I don’t think it’s easy to win two consecutive league championships,” Ohno said. “But, having said that, we will capture all the titles (we can).”
The national team’s victory at the 2011 World Cup had a dramatic effect on the Nadeshiko League, not to mention INAC Kobe, with its lineup of star players. Kobe games drew an average of 8,871 fans last year, far above the league average of 2,796. The team’s success also drew the attention of corporate sponsors, with the Leonessa signing a contract with a food company worth an estimated 100 million yen ($1.2 million) over two years.
As well, the team raised more than 200 million yen from various corporate supporters who each provided 50,000 yen or more to the club. With Kobe charging admission to all its games this season, total revenue is expected to surge four fold to some 400 million yen in 2012.
“Kobe has set the bar high, indeed, but other teams also have improved their environment and upgraded their level, too,” said Yoshinori Taguchi, a Nadeshiko League official.
Kobe’s main rival in the Nadeshiko League is NTV Beleza, which trounced Fukuoka J. Anclas 5-0 on April 15.
Beleza, the league runner-up in 2011, acquired midfielder Mizuho Sakaguchi from Albirex Niigata Ladies in the offseason. The Nadeshiko Japan member will complement top defender Azusa Iwashimizu and forward Mana Iwabuchi.
“Whoever (Sakaguchi) plays with, she can exhibit her ample skills,” NTV manager Akemi Noda said. “I hope she will become a team leader.”
Urawa Reds Ladies, who placed third last year, routed AS Elfen Sayama FC 5-0 in their 2012 opener.
The Red Ladies are anchored by defender Kyoko Yano and the club also boasts a well-balanced attack led by forward Chinatsu Kira and midfielder Miyuki Yanagita.
Okayama Yunogo Belle defeated JEF United Ichihara Chiba Ladies 2-1. Midfielder Aya Miyama, who now captains Nadeshiko Japan, midfielder Mami Yamaguchi, who also plays for the national team and has played professionally in the United States, and forward Kumi Yokoyama, a U-20 player who joined Okayama this year, are the key players for Okayama this season.
Karina Maruyama, another member of the World Cup-winning Nadeshiko Japan squad, joined Speranza FC Osaka Takatsuki in February from JEF United Ladies.
In the other match on opening day, Albirex Niigata Ladies thrashed Iga Football Club Kunoichi 3-0.
(This article was written by Junya Yoshida and Toshiyuki Shimizu.)
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