Japanese footballers look to inspire a nation once again by kicking off Olympic Torch Relay

With the 2011 FIFA Women's World Cup winners Nadeshiko Japan as first torchbearers, the 121-day journey begins from the J-Village in Fukushima on Thursday - a year after the postponement of the Tokyo Games in 2021.

By Shintaro Kano
Picture by 2011 Getty Images

If you need to inspire an entire country, leave it to the Nadeshiko Japan women's national football team.

The Grand Start of the Olympic Torch Relay for the Tokyo 2020 Games in 2021 takes place on Thursday (25 March), with the host nation's 2011 FIFA Women's World Cup champions carrying the torch through the first leg of a 121-day journey at a place they are all too familiar with - the J-Village national training facility in Fukushima Prefecture.

"The Torch Relay is starting from the J-Village, which is our sanctuary, our mecca", said Sasaki Norio, manager of the 2011 championship squad who will run first, during a press conference in Tokyo on Wednesday.

"It is an absolute honour to be chosen for this. The players and I could not be more grateful.

"We have been with the J-Village, now and before. We were there not long after the quake, when the situation was critical. And we were there when it reopened.

Ex-Nadeshiko Japan coach Sasaki Norio will take the torch first in Thursday's Grand Start of the Olympic Torch Relay.
Picture by 2016 Getty Images

"After the quake in 2011, we weren’t even sure if we would be able to take part (in the World Cup) or let alone train properly. But the women came together for Japan and grew with each game, winning the title in the end against most expectations," Sasaki Norio added.

"What we realised through the experience back then is how much sport can inspire. These Games will be a challenge without question. So for us to be able to mark the start of it all means a great deal to us." - Sasaki Norio

Recovery

The Great East Japan Earthquake struck on March 11, 2011 - just four months before the Nadeshiko hoisted the cup on a summer evening in Frankfurt, where they edged the United States in a shootout in the final.

Fukushima was one of the areas hit hardest by the M9.0 quake, which took close to 16,000 lives. More than 2,500 remain missing.

The J-Village is 30 minutes away by car from the nuclear power plant that melted down and paralysed the eastern coastline of the country.

Overnight, it was turned into a government base to tackle the meltdown, looking nothing like the training hub it was for Japan's national teams with bright green pitches.

It wasn't until April 2019 that the J-Village reopened as a sports facility.

Sasaki and 15 players from the 2011 side will appear in Thursday's Grand Start of the Torch Relay, which will pass through all 47 Japanese prefectures before the Games open on 23 July.

The route and schedule of the Torch Relay went unchanged following the one-year postponement of the Games to the summer of 2021 due to the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic. You can watch the relay live here.

Ballon d'Or winner Sawa withdraws

Sasaki had to be the bearer of some disappointing news, however: 2011 Women's World Football of the Year Sawa Homare, who captained Japan to the title that year, will not take part because of an illness.

Sasaki said Sawa has been dealing with issues to her ear canal. She suffered similar problems ahead of London 2012.

"She really wanted to participate and tried hard to make it happen", Sasaki said of his former skipper. "But she called yesterday saying she can't make it. It affects her when she walks, runs.

"It's unfortunate but the rest of us will step up on her behalf on the pitch at the J-Village".

The Nadeshiko based overseas - Kumagai Saki, who converted the winning penalty in the final, Iwabuchi Mana, and Kawasumi Nahomi - have also withdrawn. As has Winter Olympic silver medal winning figure skater Uno Shoma, following isolation required after his participation in the ISU World Championships.

After Fukushima, the torch will head to Tochigi on Sunday and then to Gunma on 30 March.

The Torch Relay ends with the Games' Opening Ceremony on 23 July 2021 at the Olympic Stadium in Tokyo.

Sasaki hopes the mood will brighten not only in Japan but around the entire world as the Torch Relay gets going.

"We know firsthand how sport can help provide the fight in people. The situation surrounding the pandemic is grave but as long as there is hope, I think it’s important for all of us to stay positive and look at the bright side of things."

"If you wanted to nitpick you could do it all day. I believe it is Japan’s responsibility to show the world the true power of sport".