Photo/IllutrationAsako Takakura, coach of the women's soccer national team, speaks at a news conference in Tokyo in May ahead of the World Cup in France. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

Around 20 years ago, Japanese women soccer players didn’t have it easy.

Many of the grounds where they played had no spectator stands, and were not equipped with locker rooms, so they sometimes had to change behind bushes.

Many gave up playing in games in faraway locations because they had to pay their own travel expenses.

Asako Takakura, 51, remembers those tough times. She is the coach of the women’s soccer national team, nicknamed Nadeshiko Japan, which is competing in the World Cup in France.

According to her book “Ko o Ikashi Wa o Kanaderu” (Encourage individualism to achieve team harmony), a team Takakura signed with disbanded only six months later. It was after the nation’s asset-inflated economic boom collapsed and many corporate sponsors were pulling out of the sport.

“We failed to qualify for the (2000 Sydney) Olympics,” she notes. “That was the Ice Age for women’s soccer.”

Still fresh in our memories is Nadeshiko’s triumph in the 2011 World Cup, which helped assuage the national gloom over the devastation brought by the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami in March that year.

The older star players of that era have since retired, and the team is in the process of generational transition.

Growing up in Fukushima, Takakura joined a local boys’ soccer team when she was a fourth-grader in elementary school.

After she entered junior high school, she joined a girls’ team in Tokyo because there were no girls’ teams in her area. She traveled to the capital every weekend, spending three hours each way.

At Tokyo’s Ueno Station, she was once mistaken for a runaway. When she explained, the response she got was, “Why would a girl want to play soccer?”

Takakura won a berth on the national team when she was in her third year at junior high school. She went on to play in the World Cup in 1991 and 1995 and the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.

In the current World Cup, the first match she oversaw on June 10 ended in a disappointing draw against Argentina.

Takakura appeared to have gotten over it by the next day, according to a colleague of mine who is covering the event in France.

Smiling convivially with her team, she shrugged, saying, “The god of soccer doesn’t let you win easily.”

The second match is scheduled for tonight against Scotland, which survived tough preliminaries in Europe.

Takakura has been racing at top gear on the forefront of Japanese women’s soccer all these years. I would love to see her flash a big, happy grin of satisfaction.

--The Asahi Shimbun, June 14

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Vox Populi, Vox Dei is a popular daily column that takes up a wide range of topics, including culture, arts and social trends and developments. Written by veteran Asahi Shimbun writers, the column provides useful perspectives on and insights into contemporary Japan and its culture.