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Tokyo: NTV Beleza have been developing the finest female talent in Japan for more than 35 years. The club provided eight of the East Asian country’s 2011 FIFA Women’s World Cup-winning squad and wants its next generation to appear at the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo. 

With that famous Women’s World Cup triumph having taken place six years ago this month, we take an in-depth look at one of Japan’s most successful women football teams.


Root and Branch

Success is impossible without strong, well-laid foundations, and in NTV Beleza Japanese football has a club inextricably bound to the roots of the women’s game.

Founded in 1981 as Yomiuri Soccer Club Women (Beleza), the team have been at the forefront of developing women’s football in Japan from the outset. Far and away the most successful club in Japan with 14 league titles, 11 Empress’s Cup triumphs, and four League Cup crowns, Beleza’s impact can not only be measured in silverware but also the legacy they have left – and continue to leave – on the national team.

Eight of the 21 women who created history as Nadeshiko Japan won the 2011 Women’s World Cup in Germany were current or former Beleza players, for instance, and that tradition of providing a core for the international stage is a central principle of the club.


Nadeshiko Japan star Homare Sawa began her career at Beleza

Kazuhiko Takemoto managed Beleza for 11 years between 1986 and 1997, during which time he was in charge of such pioneers as Akemi Noda, who would go on to captain Japan at the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games, the legendary Homare Sawa, and current Nadeshiko manager – and Takemoto’s wife – Asako Takakura.

“When I was coaching women’s football, I felt there was the potential to become the best in the world,” Takemoto, now general manager of Beleza and men’s side Tokyo Verdy, says.

“Japanese people have enthusiasm, intelligence, and organisation – our bodies are smaller but we are nimble. If we could find a style of football that suited us, I felt it was possible to aim for that.”


A winning philosophy

The determination to formulate a winning approach permeates the club as a whole, and is explained more precisely by Mayumi Teratani, a former player and manager who is now technical director of Tokyo Verdy Ladies Group and manager of the Beleza youth team, Menina.

“In our team, a particular focus is placed on watching the opponent and then playing football,” she says. “It’s not so much a case of learning football in a particular way, but encouraging players to master the skill of thinking while playing.

“Perhaps repeating things in training is an easier way to achieve quick results, and of course we want to win, but we feel that if you become trapped in that way of playing you won’t acquire the ability you need at the most important time once you have become an adult, and then the results won’t come.”


Mayumi Teratani, Manager of Beleza Youth Team Menina

For Teratani, coaching the Menina players, aged between 12-18, is about more than simply imparting advice on technique and tactics.

“Everyone is still in middle school or high school so it’s not just about teaching football but also providing an education in terms of developing them as people.”

That objective permeates every aspect of the club, including the clubhouse.

“The men’s top team train at the same facilities, so the players and coaches from all the teams are able to speak to each other and do stretching together and so on,” Takemoto says.

“That co-existence means the players can watch each other play and discuss things. Having everyone in the same place hasn’t changed since the beginning, which I think builds into the strength of the club.

“It’s not just football, but life skills – being on time, keeping promises, respecting people – those things are all important in football. It’s not just a case of being good at football, but keeping in mind things such as considering others, not just thinking about yourself but what’s best for the team, the club, for women’s football as a whole, sport overall.”

 


The One-club Woman


Nadeshiko Japan and Beleza NTV defender Azusa Iwashimizu

One of Beleza’s most trusted servants is Azusa Iwashimizu, who has been a one-club player since joining the youth team in 1999.

“I feel lucky that I joined Menina, and once I was in I was aware that this was a club that could boast being the best women’s team,” the 30-year-old says.

“There is the top team and also the youth levels and I really like the sense of unity within the club. There’s a feeling of it being my second family, I guess.”

As well as captaining Beleza to back-to-back league titles in the last two years, Iwashimizu is also a key player for her country, and despite being a centre-back scored the winning goals in the finals of the 2010 Asian Games and 2014 AFC Women’s Asian Cup. She was also part of the Beleza spine that sealed glory for Nadeshiko Japan in Frankfurt six years ago.


Foundations of World Cup Glory

“I think Beleza provided the base of the team that won the World Cup in 2011,” Teratani says.

“For that generation, things were not as structured when they started out as they are now. These days, for instance, there are under category teams too, and so 15- and 16-year-old players don’t just all of a sudden get thrown into the top team. For the earlier generation that was normal, and so they were gaining experience of full national team football from when they were teenagers.”

Iwashimizu, who made her first start for Beleza aged 16, agrees that everything seemed to fall into place for Norio Sasaki’s side at the World Cup, and combined with unfortunate circumstances, that drove the players forward.

“The Great East Japan Earthquake had just happened, and so to a certain extent we had the sense of a duty to send some good news back to Japan,” she recalls.

“There was that unseen spirit there, but the players were at good ages too, with experience and youth, we had momentum, and everyone was in a good condition to deal with the competition.”

Sawa’s heroics came to define Japan’s triumph, but Iwashimizu made a similarly vital contribution in additional time of extra time in the final, receiving a straight red card for a last-ditch challenge on Alex Morgan, as the USA forward looked certain to strike the winner.

Iwashimizu still insists she was playing the ball, but either way she kept the game alive for Japan and set the scene for the remarkable penalty shoot-out that was to follow.

“I felt like Beleza, who had been working towards that from so long ago, had had some kind of influence on the success,” Teratani says.

“If Beleza hadn’t existed maybe that wouldn’t have happened. Of course it’s not just us, every team played a part, but I felt really pleased that we had kept at it for all that time.”


Troubled Times

And kept it they had. After the bubble burst on Japan’s economy in the mid-1990s a whole host of women’s teams were wound up, and Beleza very nearly joined them.

“There was also talk of closing Beleza too,” Takemoto remembers of that bleak spell. “But thanks to the enthusiasm of the coaches and others at the club they were able to overcome the threat.”

For Teratani that period remains the toughest of her career.

“Of course we didn’t make it to the Olympics last year,” she says of Japan’s failure to appear at the Rio Games, “but there was another time too, Sydney in 2000.

“Many company teams were folding, and after we missed that chance the four years until Athens produced lots of doubts about whether the league would continue and whether the club would continue.

There were times when we really thought that was it, but then we appeared at Athens and bit by bit things improved.”
 


Looking to the future

The women’s game has certainly made huge strides since then, with Iwashimizu having experienced the growth first-hand.

“There’s not such a big difference in the quality of teams in the Nadeshiko League now,” she says. “Before there was a bigger gap and there’d be 10-0s and lots of easy games, but now every game is closely contested.”

Looking ahead, she would be keen for Beleza to test themselves on a bigger stage.

“I’d like it if there was an Asian Champions League or Club World Cup like the men have. I think this Beleza team would have the ability to compete and I’d like to be able to show our style.”

Takemoto’s eyes are also set firmly on the future, and ensuring Beleza continue to play a leading role in the women’s game.

“I think we are a club that can lead straight into the national team,” he says.

“The 2020 Olympics is coming up in Tokyo, at which we want several players to appear and where the aim is to win gold. Three years after that there is a chance that Japan will host the 2023 Women’s World Cup too. The national team’s schedule further down the line is our present; we want to make a strong team to compete there.”

That approach has seen Beleza serve Japanese women’s football well for almost 40 years, and the fruits of their labours look sure to keep prospering for club and country alike.

Photos: Tokyo Verdy