In the past decade, soccer fans witnessed Nadeshiko Japan’s stellar achievements on the global stage.
Despite the Japan women’s national team’s many accomplishments, including its 2011 Women’s World Cup final victory in a penalty shootout against the United States, runner-up finish to the United States at the 2015 WWC and silver-medal finish at the 2012 London Olympics, the current domestic structure could use a shake-up.
[REVISIT Nadeshiko Japan’s triumph over the United States in the 2011 Women’s World Cup final here.]
Which is why Japan Football Association leaders deserve credit for examining the staid domestic women’s soccer landscape, aiming for bigger and better and announcing plans to raise the bar. A full-fledged women’s pro circuit, the WE League, is the result.
The inaugural 2021-22 season is set to begin in September 2021 with six to 10 teams. Teams entering the league haven’t been announced yet.
Last Wednesday, JFA President Kozo Tashima informed the world that WE League, which stands for women’s empowerment, is the name of the new circuit. The WE League will supersede the Nadeshiko League at the top of the sports pyramid in Japan.
In essence, it appears that the Nadeshiko League will serve as a development league for the new top flight. (Relegation and promotion between the WE League and the Nadeshiko League are not in the cards for 2021-22, though that could change in the future.)
Tashima outlined the vision for the new league, saying the nation’s soccer governing body wants it to make an impact beyond the pitch.
“Our aim is to contribute to building a sustainable society through promoting female social participation and enhancing diversities and choices. How we contribute to society through sports is an important mission for all of us in the sports world,” Tashima said in a statement on the same day as the JFA announcement.
We will work to establish the career of women’s professional footballers, which is the dream of many girls, and further promote women’s empowerment and solve social issues.
Plans for a new women’s top flight league were made public last year, but the timing of the announcement in the run-up to the FIFA Council’s vote on the 2023 Women’s World Cup host on June 25 adds intrigue to the story.
The finalists? Japan, Colombia, and a joint bid by Australia and New Zealand. Brazil withdrew its bid on Monday, citing financial concerns caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
If Japan is awarded the 2023 Women’s World Cup, it can become a big publicity vehicle for the WE League, too.
Even without a 2023 tournament in Japan, women’s soccer has plenty of room to grow and improve here, with an energized fan base and overall cooperation among teams and the league office ー with proper financial backing, of course.
After all, young girls aspire to emulate the feats of their Nadeshiko heroines, who reached the quarterfinals at the 2004 Athens Olympics, and nabbed the top prize at the 2018 Asian Games and the Asian Football Confederation’s 2018 Women’s Asian Cup.
Japan, guided by Asako Takakura since 2016, is No. 11 in the latest FIFA world rankings. The top five: United States, Germany, France, the Netherlands and Sweden.
Current Top-flight Structure
Under the current women’s soccer pyramid in Japan, the Nadeshiko League, which was established in 1989, now consists of three divisions and 32 total teams. There are 10 first-division clubs, 10 second-division teams and 12 third-division squads. The circuit, officially known as the Japan Women’s Football League, essentially operates as an amateur league. For example, Kyodo News reported in February that only one Nadeshiko League club, INAC Kobe Leonessa, has players, first and foremost, employed as athletes. The new league will have team operating budgets of about ¥450 million JPY ($4.1 million USD), according to Kyodo.
The powerhouse Nadeshiko League franchise, Nippon TV Beleza, has captured 13 titles in the first division since 2000, including five straight from 2014-19.
A more competitive domestic pro circuit can help bolster the national team, which has only a few current players employed by overseas clubs, including captain Saki Kumagai (French club Lyon) and Kumi Yokoyama (National Women's Soccer League's Washington Spirit).
The 2020 Nadeshiko League campaign is set to start on July 18, but spectators will not be permitted to attend games at the outset due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
There’s nothing wrong with having teams named after corporations, but from a marketing standpoint it’s arguably easier to promote teams with names derived from a geographic locale. It also helps teams foster a stronger identity with their local and regional fan bases.
WE League Policies
The JFA revealed that it will require WE League outfits to have a city or region as part of their names, though company or brand names can also be a part of teams’ nicknames.
I believe that’s a smart, progressive move. But, as a new pro circuit, the WE League must also formulate bold plans to promote top players and all teams.
As for the WE League’s financial plans, teams will be required to sign five players to “A” contracts, meaning deals that are not part of a salary cap.
In addition to the contract regulations, teams will be required to have a minimum of one female executive. Moreover, as Tashima noted in his remarks about women’s empowerment, clubs must have females comprise at least 50% of their total employee base within three years.
The WE League’s financial and hiring goals will be big challenges at the start, but they look attainable, with accountability and a serious commitment from team management and league executives setting the tone.
Author: Ed Odeven