Sunday 12th September marked history for women's football and the start of change in Japan. After years of planning, developing and sacrifice, the WE League finally got underway in what is Japan's first professional football league.
An opening ceremony full of guitar solos, flashing lights and fireworks, encapsulated the pride and energy that the league aims to achieve. Despite fan attendance being limited due to Covid restrictions, there was 15,000 fans in attendance across the five fixtures and thousands tuning in on DAZN and DAZN Japan's YouTube channel. Whilst the response has been incredibly positive, the challenge now for the league and chairwoman Kikuko Okajima, is to try and maintain this interest and inspire the next generation.
"The WE League is the stage where everyone becomes a hero" spoke Kikuko prior to the games. The aim is for WE Lesgue to become a pedestal in the Asia-Pacific region in order to find untapped talent, help develop players careers, bring in great foreign talent, improve the national team and to become a powerhouse in women's football. Particularly ahead of the 2023 Women's World Cup which is being hosted by Australia and New Zealand. Despite Japan's success in winning the World Cup in 2011, their progress and development has stagnated in comparison to other countries and interest has dwindled. Kikuko's hope is that over the next couple of years, WE League becomes a football league which is known globally and is seen a good destination for female players to develop and flourish. They also want to help break down the barriers of stereotypes and sexism of women and women in sports.
Matchweek 1 Review
INAC Kobe Leonessa 5 v 0 Omiya Ardija Ventus
4,123 fans were in attendance for the opening game of the WE.League season in what was a 10am kick off and couldn't have been a better game to open things up. Well...if you're not an Omiya fan that is. Kobe opened up the scoring in the 4th minute, through Megumi Takase who finished off a rebound shot which had come off the post to make it 1-0. They made it 2-0 several minutes later when Hina Sugita received the ball in the box from a deep Emi Nakajima cross. Sugita held the ball up well before, laying it off for Maika Hamada to tap in. The game did settle for a period of time after this and Omiya would have had hopes of getting back into the game in the second half, if they could just make it into halftime. However, Kobe continued their press. In the 40th minute, Moeno Sakaguchi saw her cross turned away for an own goal to make it 3-0 and then 5 minutes later, Kobe made it 4-0 when Hina Sugita cut inside from the left wing and sent in a wonderful cross for Maika Hamano to head home for her second of the game. After the second half, Omiya did have their own fair share of chances in front of goal and pushed Kobe back a little, however, they failed to make the most of their opportunities and were not clinical enough in front of goal. Registering 5 shots in the whole game to Kobe's 23. It was in the 57th minute of the game, that Kobe finished the match off, when Moeno Sakaguchi saw Megumi Takase making a run inbetween the backline and sent in a fantastic through ball. Takase controlled the ball well and calmly slotted the ball into the bottom right corner. Kobe did have the opportunity to make 6-0 right at the end in similar fashion to the 5th goal, however Maika Hamano was unable to take her chance in front of goal, which would've been her hattrick
Tokyo Verdy Beleza 1 v 2 Urawa Reds Ladies
The game between these two sides, was highly anticipated and the total allocation of 2,437 was sold out days before the game kicked off. Two very respectable clubs in Japanese football, with numerous accolades and titles under their respective belts, it was a thoroughly balanced and entertaining game. From the start of the match, both sides had an even amount of possession and were in no rush to attack on goal, opting to get a feel for the game and opponent. It was in the 33rd minute when the first goal came and it was Beleza who went ahead. Starting from the their own backline, Narumi Miura launched a deep long ball in between the Urawa backline which looked suspiciously offside, but Riko Ueki played on despite the calls. Ueki held the ball up well and layed the ball off to the onrushing Rikako Kobayashi, who then returned the favour by laying it for Ueki to finish. Urawa still appealed to the referee and lineswoman, but the goal stood. It remained 1-0 to Verdy for the remainder of the half, but it was Urawa who came out with renewed vigour. In the 49th minute Hana Takahashi saw Kozue Ando making a run in behind the defence and played in a wonderful through ball. Ando ran with the ball along the right wing before turning to cross it into the box for Yuika Sugasawa to hit first time on the volley to make it 1-1. The game opened up from then on, but it was in the dying moments of the game that Urawa finished the game off. In a beautiful move Sugasawa took the ball past the keeper when she charged off her line, she crossed the ball into Mei Shimada who went to strike the ball, but found that it ricocheted off the defender. The ball fortuitously landed at the feet of Yuzuho Shiokoshi who shielded the ball well with her back towards goal and then turned wonderfully to strike the ball with tremendous power and accuracy to send the ball into the top right corner, in what was a sensational goal and the match winner.
Mynavi Sendai Ladies 0 v 0 Stella Kanagawa
Unlike the two other games, this was a match which was very much one-sided. However, despite dominating possession and registering 10 shots, 7 corners and 7 freekicks, Sendai Ladies were unable to make the most of their opportunities. Sendai defender Miyu Takahira, had two good chances on goal, with one of them firing up and off the crossbar. As well Miho Manya hitting a looping volley which looked destined to go into the top corner until Nojima goalkeeper Fubuki Kuno pulled off a fantastic one handed save to knock it onto the bar. German national Cindy Koenig came on as a substitute towards the later stages of the game and did try an audacious attempt to catch Sendai keeper Mamiko Matsumoto off the line and shot from near the halfway line, but there was not enough in the shot to cause the keeper to be concerned. 1741 fans were in attendance as the game ended in a draw.
Elfen Saitama 0 v 3 Sanfreece Hiroshima Regina
Just over a year ago, there was no such team as Sanfrecce Hiroshima Regina, but they have quickly showed that you don't need an extensive history to be a good team. In an impressive performance and display, 1390 fans watched as Hiroshima opened the scoring in the 9th minute. Yo Tachibana chased down a through ball from Yuna Matsubara and hustled the Saitama backline to retrieve the ball back. She succeeded and managed to lay the ball off Rika Masuya who struck the ball first time, but striker Mami Ueno managed to interrupt the shot and backheeled the ball into the bottom left corner. The momentum was suddenly with Sanfrecce and a minute later they made it 2-0 when they struck on the counter with Yoshino Nakashima taking the ball down the left wing and into the box, before laying it across the 6 yards box for Rika Masuya to slam home. Saitama midfielder Riko Yoshida did have a chance on goal which nearly found the back of the net, when Regina goalkeeper Runa Konomi almost fumbled the ball into the goal, but did enough to put it out for a corner. Sanfrecce made it 3-0 in the 56th minute when Rika Masuya played in a lovely through ball in between the Saitama backline for Yoshino Nakashima to run onto and hit first time superbly to see it loft into the top corner, leaving the goalkeeper no chance of saving it. Elfen Saitama did try to get a goal back towards the end of the game, but their shots either went wayward or were aimed straight at the keeper.
Albirex Niigata Ladies 1 v 3 AC Nagano Parceiro Ladies
For the final game of Matchweek 1 in WE League, it saw 1423 fans in attendance to watch what they would've assumed to be a victory to Niigata, but that was far from the case. Nagano opened the scoring in the 9th minute when Rio Takizawa played in a through ball in between the Niigata backline. Midfielder Chise Takizawa was able to use her fast pace, to beat the players off and struck it first time into the bottom right corner. To Niigata's credit, they did respond straight away and made it 1-1 in the 14th minute through Hikaru Kitagawa's first time volley from a Yuna Sonoda corner. However, Nagano weren't about to let the game fall out of their hands. A minute after the equaliser, it was Nagano who once again took the lead when Chise Takizawa crossed the ball into the box and saw her cross poorly cleared by the Albirex backline. Sayaka Mitani capitalised and struck the ball outside the box, which Niigata goalkeeper Chika Hirao looked set to save, until her defender Ruka Yamaya sutck out a leg ans deflected the ball into the goal. After halftime, the game did lose it's edge and neither side had many opportunities or created attacking chances. But Nagano did finish the game off for their third goal in the 62nd minute, when Chise Takizawa who had been a thorn in Niigata's side all game, sent in a through pass inside the box for Akimi Fawafune to simply flick into the net.
Matchweek 2 Fixtures
AC Nagano Parceiro Ladies v Tokyo Beleza | Saturday 18th September | 9am UK Time
Sanfrecce Regina v Mynavi Sendai Ladies | Saturday 18th September | 10am UK Time
Omiya Ardija Ventus v Albirex Niigata Ladies | Monday 20th September | 6am UK Time
JEF United Ladies v Elfen Saitama | Monday 20th September | 7am UK Time
Urawa Reds Ladies v Stella Kanagawa | Monday 20th September | 9am UK Time
How to watch
Unfortuantley despite conversations being had that opening day fixtures were going to be available to global audiences on DAZN Japan's YouTube channel, those trying to tune in internationally (such as myself) soon found themselves geo-blocked and unable to watch the games unless they had a VPN.
Whilst no word has been heard yet regarding this weekends fixtures, my feeling is that the games will not be available to international viewers and that unfortunately unless you live in Japan or have a VPN, you won't be able to watch the games. That being said, if you are wanting to follow the league and can't catch the games, the WE League YouTube channel is uploading highlights of each game which are around 2-3 minutes long.
If you do live in Japan, the games can be watched on DAZN or on DAZN Japan's YouTube channel.