Nadeshiko League: Five players to watch ahead of Tokyo 2020

INAC Kobe Leonessa and JEF United Ichihara Chiba Ladies compete for the ball during the Nadeshiko League match at Home's Stadium Kobe in 2011
INAC Kobe Leonessa and JEF United Ichihara Chiba Ladies compete for the ball during the Nadeshiko League match at Home's Stadium Kobe in 2011

The Nadeshiko League will restart this Saturday, 18 July, following an enforced postponement caused by COVID-19. It will also be the last season in its current format, as Japan’s top-flight women’s league is scheduled to turn professional in 2021.

Over the years the Nadeshiko League – widely regarded as being one of the strongest women’s leagues in the world – has provided most of the players for Japan’s national team.

However, since Japan last reached the final of the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup Final – three years after clinching silver at the Olympic Games London 2012 – the national team has been going through a tough period, and are currently 11th in the FIFA rankings.

Despite this, hope remains high that Japan will secure an Olympic medal on home soil next summer with a crop of young talent bursting to hit the ground running.

“Our goal is to win the gold medal at the 2020 Olympic Games on home soil. Nothing more and nothing less,” said experienced Lyon defender KUMAGAI Saki to FIFA.com.

“The achievements of the Nadeshiko have made a big impact on the women’s game in Japan. As a player, I want to do whatever I can to help the team and make women’s football progress even further.”

Most of the golden generation who won the 2011 FIFA Women’s World Cup for Japan - including MIYAMA Aya, SAWA Homare and OHNO Shinobu - have retired. But the national team is rebuilding and can count on dozens of talented players who are likely to take to the field this weekend.

“Of course, we must work on many things as we build toward the Olympic Games,” Japan’s national team coach TAKAKURA Asako told reporters. “I’d be lying if I said there was no pressure, but I think it’s important to do my best and ensure the players, and I, don’t forget to enjoy our football.”

But who are the players to keep an eye on with a home Olympic Games on the horizon? Tokyo 2020 takes a look at some of those who are likely to feature for the national team next year.

Japan waits after being awarded with their second place medals after their 5-2 loss to the United States in the FIFA Women's World Cup Canada 2015 Final
Japan waits after being awarded with their second place medals after their 5-2 loss to the United States in the FIFA Women's World Cup Canada 2015 Final
Dennis Grombkowski/Getty Images

HASEGAWA Yui, Midfielder, 23, Beleza

Hasegawa is a typical box-to-box midfielder and one of the key players for Japan’s national team and her club, Beleza. Often compared to one of the biggest stars of the previous golden generation, MIYAMA Aya, the 23-year-old has played in all national youth and senior teams for her nation and was part of the squad that came third in the 2016 U-20 Women’s World Cup. Now a regular in the national team, Hasegawa is eagerly looking forward to the Games. “It will be precious timing for me if I am there and play in front of my family, friends and those who took me to this place, like my coaches.”

IWABUCHI Mana, Forward, 27, INAC Kobe Leonessa

Iwabuchi is one of the most experienced members of the national team. The 1.55m striker shot to stardom in 2008 when she scooped the Asian Young Footballer of the Year Award, before making her debut with the national team as a 17-year-old in 2010. Fast and skilful, Iwabuchi has remained in prolific form ever since, and was top scorer for Japan with five goals during the EAFF E-1 Football Championship last December. The forward, who has previously played at both Bayern Munich and Hoffenheim, has scored 27 goals in 69 caps for her country.

SHIMIZU Risa, Defender, 24, Beleza

She may not have the same profile as KUMAGAI Saki, but Shimizu is a solid defender. Compact (1.60m) and fast, the 24-year-old has a fierce reputation for not giving up and never stops running. With 114 appearances under her belt for Beleza since her debut in 2013, and 31 caps already with the national team including at the last World Cup in France, Shimizu certainly has enough experience to reassure her team at an Olympic Games.

MIURA Narumi, Midfielder, 23, Beleza

Part of the generation who reached third place at the 2016 U-20 Women’s World Cup, Miura is among a crop of new young talents that TAKAKURA Asako selected for the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup. A serious player who always wants to be on the ball, Miura has become a regular for Beleza since 2016. She’s earned 17 caps since 2018 with Japan and will certainly want to prove her value next year at the Olympic Games.

SUGITA Hina, Midfielder, 23, INAC Kobe Leonessa

Sugita scored five goals, was awarded the Golden Ball (best player award at a World Cup) and won the World Cup as captain of the U-17 national team at the 2014 U-17 Women’s World Cup. Two years later with the U-20s, she was again awarded the Golden Ball as Japan finished third. She made her senior debut in 2018 and has earned 14 caps. Technically strong and smart, the playmaker has an eye for the game and a taste for perfect passes.