A closer look at the 24 teams in the 2012 Olympics
'In the Spotlight' is a series that will profile each of the 24 participating teams at the London Olympic Games. It will provide a glimpse of what to expect as each squad begins its London quest. Between now and the Olympic opening ceremony a new team will be featured every 2-3 days. Today, we feature the Japanese women's national team.
The Japanese women weigh in at ninth in the FIH World Ranking, and are the third-highest ranked team from Asia, behind China and Korea. At the Games, they will play in Group B where they will meet both their Asian rivals in addition to the Netherlands, Great Britain and Belgium. Japan has a modest Olympic history, playing in only the two last games where they finished 10th in Beijing and eighth in Athens. But since their last Olympic appearance, the Japanese women have had two of their strongest showings on the international stage. The first was winning the Champions Challenge 1 in June 2011 in Dublin earning the right to move up to the Champions Trophy where their second success was a strong fifth-place finish. As a fun fact, Japan recently jumped on the nickname train, and are called ‘Sakura’ which means Cherry Blossom.
The Road to London:
Japan convincingly won the third and final women’s qualification tournament on home soil in Kakamigahara with a 5-1 victory in the final game against Azerbaijan. The Japanese women were under intense pressure and media scrutiny during the event and weathered the storm with grace. The only blip on the radar during the six-games was a 0-0 draw against Chile.
Players to Watch:
At 41 years of age, Akemi Kato will be not only the oldest player in the women’s hockey tournament, but also among the oldest athletes at the Games. But don’t be fooled, Kato is able to keep up with Japan’s speedy squad while brining the experience of nearly 400 caps to the table. Kaori Fujio and Rika Komazawa provide a nice one-two punch on offense. Fujio has exception scoring skills from the field, while Komazawa is strong on the penalty corner. Fujio, Komazawa, Kato and Sachimi Iwao have played for Japan in all three of their Olympic appearances.
Zenjiro Yasuda has guided the Japanese through their last few successful years. With each passing event, the team is stronger as evidenced through their rise in both the standings and the FIH event schedule. The veteran coach always speaks humbly of his squad before matches and puts little stock in pre-game standings or hype.
Japan has amazing speed and a high fitness level that allows them to push their opponents to brink. Their discipline and reserve both on and off the field is impressive to behold, meaning they are likely one of the teams least likely to be affected by the massive media hype around the games. The team has even been known to bow to its opponent after each match, regardless of the outcome. Japan has also a solid three or four players that can be counted on to score, making it tough to cover them on defense.
When the Japanese women’s team is on, they are precise, quick, and nearly unstoppable – the teams at the last FIH Champions Trophy in Argentina learned this lesson the hard way. But when Japan is off, they simply don’t function, as evidenced by the scoreless tie against Chile at the qualifier. Japan has to make sure its offense is in top form and avoid a rollercoaster performance – it’s one thing to pull out of a funk at a qualification tournament, but entirely another to perk up in the middle of the Olympics.
The Japanese women’s program is on an upswing, but is likely a good Olympic cycle away from threatening to take a place on the podium. That being said, the Japanese are poised to pull off at least one major upset and should thrive in the Asian-heavy Pool A, giving them their best possible chance to go for a Cinderella surprise appearance in the semi-finals.