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Perspective | Japan’s World Cup heartbreak cut deeper than a single loss

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AUCKLAND, New Zealand — From the opening moments, the swelling support for the Japanese women’s national team sounded like a boom boom boom of a bass drum.

A Japanese man wearing a pink curly wig possessed the mallet, and he kept the beat going from the northwest corner of Eden Park. At times, the drummer would pause to reset to a new rhythm, but mostly he banged in threes throughout Japan’s World Cup quarterfinal match against Sweden. All around the drum leader were Japanese women dressed in homemade blue Samurai outfits, another man happily passing out Japanese folding fans (or sensu) and White children with a miniature version of a Japanese flag painted on their faces. Real versions of the white and red Rising Sun dotted the stadium, from the upper to the lower decks.

On Friday night it looked, and sounded, as though the bandwagon had finally arrived for Japan, in a match witnessed by a pro-Nadeshiko crowd of 43,217 fans, and viewed by many more back home on the main channel of the country’s public broadcasting network. It was a moment needed to boost women’s soccer in a nation that loves its winners, and ignores mediocrity.

But by the end of the match, ABBA’s 70s hit “Mamma Mia” blasted throughout the stadium, drowning out all the other music makers, as a way to commemorate Sweden’s 2-1 victory. After the Nadeshiko spent weeks playing efficient and beautiful soccer in this tournament, the drumbeat went silent. It might take another four years for women’s soccer in Japan to hear the boom boom boom again.

For the other remaining World Cup teams, the stakes didn’t feel as high. For sure, soccer-mad countries would lament a loss. The back pages of the British tabloids might rip the Lionesses, and the Aussies might applaud their Matildas in defeat, then shrug and get ready for the next footy match. But no loss would send the Brits spiraling into a universe where soccer and tea no longer existed, or where Australian A-League games, the women’s pro soccer league Down Under, couldn’t be viewed on live television.

The Japanese women, however, felt like they were playing for the future health of their sport.

“Of course they want to win the tournament as an athlete, but they are thinking this is a great chance to give a future opportunity for the girls who want to play football,” Megumi Mitskinis, a freelance journalist for the Japanese media outlet NHK, told me before the night’s match. “So, yeah, there’s a lot of things behind just winning.”

You rarely hear an athlete speak like Japanese team captain Saki Kumagai did ahead of the tournament of their life. According to DW.com, a German international outlet, Kumagai traced the waning popularity of the women’s game in Japan from its peak more than a decade ago to today. In 2011, the national team won the World Cup, and Japan fell in love with women’s soccer. Four years later, the team once again advanced to the final but lost to the United States. Then in France for the 2019 tournament, the team bailed out in the round of 16.

“After we won the World Cup, a lot of girls started playing football,” said Kumagai, who plays professionally in Germany. “A lot of girls teams had better conditions and also a lot of people came to watch games in the Japanese league.

“Now the sport is less popular again and that’s not good. Our national team hasn’t won a lot recently and the Japanese people are less interested in the sport again.”

World Cup survivors need rest. The USWNT didn’t get any.

The nation didn’t care about group stage wins or even that 2015 runner-up finish. Each year the national team didn’t walk away with a new trophy, back home the sport languished, to the point that Haruna Takata, the chairwoman of the upstart women’s professional soccer league in Japan, had considered crowdsourcing to pay for the television rights to the World Cup games. The nation avoided a blackout when NHK struck a late deal to air the games, and a few days later Mitskinis, who lives in Australia, was on a plane to Auckland. She told me the team’s first two matches aired on the network’s secondary channel. After Japan kept winning, however, the games moved to the main stage.

“Even Captain Saki said, like, this is not only a game for them but for the future of women’s football,” Mitskinis said. “Now, finally we get the attention and everybody’s interested in women’s football. So if they can go far, they can have more [of a] chance to get all the support they need.”

Respect has come slowly for the former champs. For instance, the men’s team has brought along a chef for several World Cups. This year, finally, a chef joined the women in New Zealand.

“And we won the tournament [in 2011]! Girls won the tournament!” Mitskinis exclaimed. Just about every woman can recognize the frustration in her voice all too well. “But they’re not getting the support, and wage-wise, there’s a big gap between men and women.”

It’s laughable, almost, that the head of women’s soccer had to even think about passing around a collection plate so that one of the world’s biggest sporting events could be seen in Japan, or that a soccer federation hiring a chef for its national team would equate to baby steps of progress. But nothing’s funny about women becoming the best in their field, achieving the pinnacle of their careers and still fighting for equity.

For the Japanese, respect perhaps would come only with another triumph in the World Cup. When hope was still high, I talked to longtime women’s soccer writer Mari Hibino about the steps needed for the game’s popularity to grow. Her solution was simple.

“Keep winning. Keep winning,” Hibino said. “Japanese love a strong team.”

And a disciplined team. Famous for its connectivity and politeness. A team full of players who can control the ball, and their emotions. In other words, this Japanese team.

“It’s the Japanese culture very much,” Hibino said of the team’s style of play.

In a lot of ways, their soccer is admirable. During the early minutes, and under the sound of the constant drumbeat, forward Mina Tanaka got dispossessed and tumbled to the turf. As the shorter team, physicality didn’t favor the Japanese. But Tanaka popped right back up. In the 11th minute, Tanaka once again was cut down. She didn’t spread her arms toward the nearest official, as players are prone to do. She just prepared for her free kick. Then shoved, once more, minutes later with no foul, Tanaka once again climbed to her feet and wordlessly went back to work.

However after Sweden struck first, the emotion of the game, and possibly the immensity of the moment, started to get to Japan. When a teammate got knocked down, defender Risa Shimizu reacted by spreading her arms, wondering where was the whistle. Later, forward Riko Ueki placed her hands on her temple after her header sailed over the goal. As the intensity climbed, the drummer in the northwest side kept drumming. Even after the Swedes went up 2-0, the beat continued.

The Japanese needed to pick up their rhythm, and they did. One fan heading into Eden Park described the Japanese playing style as “surgical” to Washington Post photographer Jabin Botsford, but as the time ticked away, the Nadeshiko performed like medics desperate to save a dying patient. They scored in the 87th minute, and because the crowd here had come to love surgical and efficient teamwork, the Swedes heard boos as they attempted to stall the game.

After 10 minutes of additional time, Japan could not score the equalizer. As Sweden rushed the pitch in joy, three Japanese players melted to their knees. Another fell on her back. The others stood motionless, before walking to congratulate the closest player they could find in blue and yellow. “Mamma Mia” played in its entirely, and it took nearly that long for forward Maika Hamano to be pulled to her feet. Sweden’s Jonna Andersson waited there, then hugged Hamano and consoled her by holding the back of her head.

The raw emotions coming from the women seemed to be about more than losing a World Cup game. This one felt bigger. Like something greater had been lost.

The drumbeat no longer could be heard. Just applause and appreciation as players and coaches bowed toward the northwest side of the stadium. The fans here in New Zealand’s national stadium believed in this team. Now, they leave the tournament and hope to find a new bandwagon waiting for them back home.

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