Japan, who have played in the last three major women’s tournament finals, will not be at the Olympics this summer. The fourth ranked team in the world has failed to qualify for Rio after a disastrous Asian Football Confederation Olympic qualifying that saw them eliminated from contention before their final match.
The confederation’s qualifying saw six teams play a round-robin, with the top two teams earning a spot in the Olympics. Japan lost their matches to Australia and China and drew Korea Republic before beating Vietnam, 6-1. But their four points had them sitting in fourth place with one match left to play and six points back of second place, making qualification impossible. Now their match against North Korea, in third place but also too far back to make second place, is irrelevant.
Japan’s elimination is stunning considering it was only eight months ago that they were playing in the Women’s World Cup final. Three years prior, they were in the Olympic gold medal game and in 2011, they were crowned World Cup champions.
All three of Japan’s finals were played against the United States, with the Japanese winning the first one in penalties and the Americans taking the next two. With Japan out, the U.S. – who qualified for the Olympics last month and will look to win a record fourth consecutive gold medal – have lost their chief rival in recent years.
Japan’s failure stunned Homare Sawa, the country’s leader in caps and goals who retired after last year’s World Cup. And she spoke out against the team, questioning their commitment, halfway through the qualifying tournament while Japan still had a chance at Rio.
That Japan would struggle to qualify or even fail to make it to the Olympics isn’t a total shock. After all, the Olympic field is smaller and only two teams make it from Asia’s federation. 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. But missing out on Rio and being eliminated before the final match is even played and being generally outplayed by the better teams in the region is a whole other matter.
The Japanese have some soul searching to do and three years to turn things around. They changed the profile of women’s soccer in Japan with a world championship in 2011 and followed it up with runs to finals in the next three major tournaments. 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.