Asia’s female elite return to action

It is little more than six weeks since Japan stunned the world by lifting the FIFA Women’s World Cup™ for the first time. Barely had the memory of the fluttering gold ticker-tape in Frankfurt and the resultant celebrations dissipated before Japan were back on the training ground, hunting another significant prize: qualification for the Women’s Olympic Football Tournament London 2012.

Commencing on Thursday, six Asian nations will vie over ten days of competition for just two tickets to London 2012. The tournament will be a round-robin format meaning each team will play five matches, in what promises to be an intense physical struggle in the warm climes of Jinan, China.

Continental strength
Aside from Japan, Asia’s other two Germany 2011 competitors - Australia and Korea DPR - will provide the fiercest of rivals to the Nadeshiko’s ambitions. Similarly well-credentialed are traditional heavyweight China PR, who, seeking to recover from the shock of missing their first FIFA Women’s World Cup, will have the benefit of home conditions. A rapidly rising force on the continent are Korea Republic, who have achieved significant progress at recent FIFA women's youth competitions. Completing the field are a Thailand side that won through an extensive preliminary competition to reach the final stage.

The quality and depth of the sextet, on the back of Japan’s triumph at Germany 2011, confirms the region as arguably the most competitive in the women’s game. Despite Japan’s impressive form in Germany, qualification for London amid such competition is far from assured.

I want to make more efforts every day and win a gold medal at the London Olympics.
Homare Sawa

Japan, though, have a formidable squad to call upon including German-based trio Kozue Ando, Saki Kumagai and Yuki Nagasato, and irrepressible skipper Homare Sawa. With the nation’s breakthrough success in Germany, the Nadeshiko midfielder clearly has enjoyed the taste of success. “I want to make more efforts every day and win a gold medal at the London Olympics,” said Sawa.

The afterglow of Japan’s achievements are still being felt off the field, with 3,500 fans recently attending the first training session of a week-long preparatory camp for Norio Sasaki’s charges. A few days earlier, over 22,000 were on hand at the National Stadium in Tokyo to witness Japan defeat a National League XI 3-2 in a charity match for victims of March’s earthquake.

Intense competition
Leading the charge to displace Japan are Asian champions and Germany 2011 quarter-finalists Australia, who have been buoyed by the return from injury of 2007 FIFA Women’s World Cup veterans, striker Sarah Walsh and defender Thea Slatyer. On the other side of the ledger, Ellyse Perry, scorer of one of the goals of Germany 2011, will be absent, while speedy attacker Sam Kerr suffered a serious knee injury this week in China and will also miss the qualifiers.

The ability of Korea DPR to recover from a hugely disappointing 2011 FIFA Women’s World Cup will itself be a sub-plot throughout the tournament. The North Koreans are undergoing a rebuilding process and a youthful squad struggled to reproduce the kind of form which saw them crowned Asian champions in three of their last five attempts. Conversely, their neighbours south of the border appear to be on a sharp upward trajectory, having claimed the prestigious Peace Cup last November, as well as winning the 2010 FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup.

China coach Li Xiaopeng has vowed to lead his side to London, and the former Shandong Luneng star midfielder has plenty of attacking talent at his disposal. Han Duan remains a potent goalscoring and creative outlet, with the veteran striker complemented by 2006 FIFA Women’s U-20 World Cup adidas Golden Ball winner Ma Xiaoxu. "After months of hard preparatory work, we are ready to face even the toughest of challenges,” said Li. “The most important thing now is not how we cope with the pressures, but how we are prepared mentally."