In a stunning setback, Japan fails to qualify for Rio Olympics

Japan (in blue) could do nothing to slow down Lauren Holiday and her U.S. teammates in last summer's World Cup final. Now, the Japanese have blown their chance for redemption at this summer's Olympics. (Simon Bruty/Sports Illustrated)

Japan (in blue) could do nothing to slow down Lauren Holiday and her U.S. teammates in last summer’s World Cup final. Now, the Japanese have blown their chance for redemption at this summer’s Olympics. (Simon Bruty/Sports Illustrated)

The Japanese women are ranked No. 4 in the world. They’ve made it to the finals of the last three major world tournaments:  the 2011 World Cup, the 2012 Olympics, and the 2015 World Cup. And they won the Cup in 2011.

Japan's finest hour, July 17, 2011. The team beat the United States on penalty kicks to capture the World Cup. (Reuters)

Japan’s finest hour, July 17, 2011. The team beat the United States to take home the World Cup. (Reuters)

But in a collapse almost as stunning as Mike Tyson’s limp surrender to Buster Douglas, Japan failed to earn a spot in this summer’s Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

Japan was one of six teams competing in the Asian Football Confederation’s Olympic qualifying tournament. Two teams made it through to Rio: Australia and China.

The Japanese are known for their precise, disciplined style of play and their exceptional technical skills. But they got off to a dreadful start in the qualifier, losing 3-1 to Australia, playing South Korean to a 1-1 draw, then losing 2-1 to China.

Those results mathematically eliminated Japan from finishing in the top two even before the qualifying tournament concludes on Wednesday (March 9).

Adding insult to grave injury, the tournament is being played on Japan’s home soil — in Osaka.

The most celebrated player in Japan’s history, the great Homare Sawa, was dismayed by the sorry showing.

“I know this sounds harsh but watching from the outside, I really wonder how many of the players are out on the pitch dying to win, giving it their all for the team,” said Sawa, who retired after last summer’s World Cup.

“I don’t sense enough desire, to be truthful. … I’m not getting the feeling that everyone on the squad is on the same page.”

Homare Sawa

Homare Sawa

Among Japanese footballers and fans, Sawa commands the sort of respect that Mia Hamm and Abby Wambach enjoy in the United States. She debuted with her  national team in 1993 as a 15-year-old — and scored four goals in her first game. She retired as Japan’s all-time leader in goals and caps. She was the top scorer and most valuable player at the 2011 World Cup, and the 2011 Women’s World Player of the Year — the only winner in the 15-year history of that award who was not from Brazil, Germany or the United States.

If Homare Sawa says Japan stunk, Japan stunk.

However, FOX Soccer wrote that the stench, while troubling, was not entirely a surprise:

Australia and China, who qualified, are both excellent teams who looked better than Japan at times in last year’s World Cup. Japan didn’t win a match by more than one goal at last year’s World Cup, needed a freak own goal to win their semifinal against England and were trounced by the U.S. in the final. …

The Japanese have some soul searching to do and three years to turn things around [before the 2019 World Cup]. They changed the profile of women’s soccer in Japan. … With the sport on the rise, and a taste of what it’s like to be a world power, they can’t afford to let it fall apart now.

 

 

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