NARASHINO, Japan (AP) - Jun Endo turned 19 a few days ago and is headed to her first Women’s World Cup.
The Japan forward has lots of company. Sixteen others on the 23-player roster are also going for the first time.
“I think age doesn’t matter when it comes to playing football,” Endo said, speaking Japanese at the team’s training camp on the outskirts of Tokyo.
“I know that I don’t have much experience yet, but I think I’m good at learning quickly. Because I’m younger than other players, I’ll work harder. I just try to keep running.”
Few people believe Japan will win the World Cup, which opens on June 7 in France. That honor falls to favorites like France, England, Germany and the United States, with a few outsiders like Canada, Spain and Italy starting to be considered.
But beware of Japan, a team known at home as “Nadeshiko,” the name of a small flower that is meant to symbolize the ideal Japanese woman.
The country won the World Cup in 2011 and was runner-up in 2015 - both times against the Americans. The coach this time is Asako Takakura, who has taken over from the highly successful Norio Sasaki.
Takakura went to the World Cup twice as a player and is the first woman in charge, a fact she does not seem to dwell on.
But some see it as a breakthrough in a country that has few women in corporate board rooms or in the top ranks of government. It also comes as players are pushing FIFA, the governing body of soccer, to upgrade the profile of the women’s game.
Norway superstar Ada Hegerberg is skipping the tournament to make the point.
“Many people often ask me about this,” Takakura said, speaking through an interpreter. “I believe that I just need to give my players everything I have in order to win matches and bring out the potential of my players.
“Of course, I have a large responsibility on my shoulders to get results. But I’m not alone.”
Japan has played many of the contenders in recent months, drawing with Germany and the Americans, and losing to England and France. It has qualified for every World Cup and, like the United States, could be the first team to reach the final three straight times.
The Japanese are difficult to break down and rely on speed and keeping the ball on the ground.
The squad faces Spain in a friendly on June 2 and then has group matches with Argentina, Scotland and England. Japan and England are the favorites to advance to the knockout stage.
“We have less physical size than other teams,” Takakura said. “But we have better technique and an ability to make the right decision during games. So I want to effectively use these strengths. We’ll be happy if we can show a different style of football to the world. And we’ll be exceedingly happy if we can get good results.”
Despite its dependence on youth, the team is anchored by the vastly experienced Rumi Utsugi, who plays for the Seattle Reign, and Saki Kumagai of Olympique Lyonnais, the dominant club in women’s soccer.
Utsugi will be playing in her fourth World Cup, and Kumagai her third.
Takakura is also building for the 2023 World Cup , a tournament Japan and Australia are considered contenders to host. A joint bid from North and South Korea is also possible.
“This is a very young team, so I can’t say we have enough experience,” Takakura said.
“I don’t worry too much about the lack of experience. I want to believe instead in young players’ fearless youth power. If the players believe in their techniques and ability to link passes, they may be able to surprise the world.”
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