Powerhouses ready for Japan spectacle

While Azerbaijan are hoping to use their first-time hosting of a FIFA tournament not only to ignite a passion for football but also to present their country to the world, the Japanese hosts of this year’s FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup need no such introduction.

The East Asian nation will be hosting the second of three FIFA tournaments in a period of just 12 months, with the women’s U-20 competition from 19 August to 8 September sandwiched neatly between the FIFA Club World Cups of December 2011 and December 2012.

Barcelona may have been stunning on-field victors in Yokohama at the end of last year, but perhaps less apparent to the watching television audience was the efficient manner in which the event was staged. Based on the smooth running of June’s official draw at least, the upcoming U-20 event looks set to be equally well organised.

In many ways there could not be a more appropriate venue, with Japan having secured their maiden FIFA Women’s World Cup title in Germany last year to widespread acclaim. Not only did the Nadeshiko impress with their style and grace, but the team’s victory lifted a nation suffering under the enormity of the devastating earthquake and tsunami which had struck the country just a few months earlier.

The terrible toll suffered in Japan last year will surely remain in the consciousness of all those participating in the upcoming U-20 tournament, particularly with five group matches being held at the newly rebuilt Miyagi Stadium, located near the epicenter of the earthquake.

Indeed, Japan midfielder Azusa Iwashimizu, who hails from the affected region, commented at the draw in Tokyo that she hoped the tournament would give “energy and courage” to the people in the devastated areas.

Germany, USA in contention

When it comes to the question of who will be celebrating on the field of play, June’s draw presented a stiff challenge for Group D rivals Ghana and China PR, with the pair pitted alongside USA and Germany, winners of four of the five tournaments held to date.

Germany will be seeking to retain their title after claiming the crown on home soil two years ago, while USA, so often the favourites heading into any women’s football tournament, will perhaps have an additional hunger for success.

Two years ago, their U-17 side became the first and only USA team at any age level to fail in their quest to reach a Women’s World Cup. This despite a remarkable qualifying campaign in which they had racked up 38 goals without reply, only to miss out on the finals following a penalty shoot-out defeat against Canada.

With around half of that squad likely to make the trip to Japan, expect the Stars & Stripes to display a steely determination whenever they take the field this time round.

Eyes on the hosts

However, all eyes will be on the performances of the hosts, thanks to their new-found status in the global pecking order, while confidence within the team should certainly be high after their display during last October’s qualification tournament in Vietnam, which saw them pick up four wins and a draw from their five matches.

“We have many players with good technique and we are confident in our offensive play, using our passes,” said midfielder Ayu Nakada. “We want to express our strength and show our never-say-die spirit on the pitch.”

Few would be prepared to bet against Japan featuring at the tournament denouement on 8 September. Even fewer would bet against Japan 2012 – and its Azerbaijan counterpart a few weeks later – proving resounding successes and providing more joyous moments in the ongoing growth of women’s football.