October 29, 2005 – FIFA, quite rightly, is ecstatic about the IOC decision to increase the number of teams in the Olympic women’s football tournament from 10 to 12.
This is rightful recognition of the value of the women’s game, and its growing appeal on all continents. Last year, for example, provided Japan with two memorable sporting moments, as emotional and dramatic as many accomplishments in the men’s game.
First, the crushing defeat of North Korea at Kokuritsu to qualify for Athens.
Then, in Athens itself, the heroic 1-0 defeat of the talented Sweden team.
Well, to be precise, it was nowhere near Athens, as it was held in one of the Olympic Games’ satellite cities in the north of the country.
Despite all the gold medals Japan won in Athens (16), this one game will remain a highlight, as Japan scored a goal, could have had a couple more (just ask Homare Sawa…she was so unlucky not to net one, maybe two goals) and then played with a spirit and determination that brought tears of emotion from JFA president Saburo Kawabuchi at the final whistle.
No matter what happened after that, Japan’s women had done the nation proud, and created enough interest back home to breathe new life into the L.League.
Although the women’s game has many critics among the men, I have supported it for many years. Lacking the physical power and the pace of men, it is played at a slower tempo, with more emphasis on skill, touch and movement. Up until now, it is also played in a fair spirit, with little evidence of diving, feigning injury and time-wasting. Against Sweden, for example, Japan could have resorted to all sorts of tricks late in the game, but they kept playing an open style with a smile on their faces, which was such a refreshing change in the modern game.
Ten teams was not a good number, and 12 is far from perfect, as in Beijing we will probably be having three groups of four, and from there it must come down to eight teams for the quarter-finals. This means the top two from each group qualifying, plus the best two third-placed teams.
For me this is a highly unsatisfactory formula. Eight teams works well, and so does 16, but 10 and 12 falls in between.
But FIFA must work with what they’ve got, and that means 12 teams in Beijing.
The women’s game deserves this increase, and deserves support around the world.