Canberra United may have achieved a monumental feat in winning last season’s Westfield W-League without suffering a single defeat, but Jitka Klimkova’s side face a task of herculean proportions this week as they rub shoulders with the world’s best at the inaugural International Women’s Club Championship in Japan.
The team from the nation’s capital open up their campaign tonight against Japanese champions INAC Kobe Leonessa.
Japanese women’s football is riding an enormous high on the back of last year’s breakthrough FIFA Women’s World Cup win in Germany, with the national team impressing not only with their results, but notably, with their individual technical skills and possession-based brand of football.
And, to provide further context of the task facing Canberra, Leonessa’s status in the Nadeshiko League is comparable to that of Japan in the international arena.
Canberra’s record in their all-conquering campaign, impressive that it was, is dwarfed somewhat by Leonessa’s domestic form.
The team, led by national team skipper and FIFA Women’s World Player of the Year Homare Sawa, are undefeated across 38 league matches dating back over two years.
Their only defeat in that time came during in the Nadeshiko League Cup in August, at the hands of NTV Beleza, though Leonessa were missing a handful of their young stars on duty at the FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup.
The Tokyo-based Beleza eventually won the cup to earn passage to this week’s tournament, where they will meet European champions Lyon in tonight’s late match.
Suffice to say Leonessa’s latest league title win earlier this month, came in a canter with a 15-point margin to second placed Beleza.
They did so, in part, due to a star-studded roster full of national team players, complemented by some of Japan’s finest young talent.
Aside from Sawa the list of world champions include goalkeeper Ayumi Kaihori, full-back Yukari Kinga, midfielder Asuna Tanaka and plus forwards Shinobu Ohno, Megumi Takase and Nahomi Kawasumi.
The ranks of the two-time national champions also feature some of the finest young players in the world such as Korea Republic attacking midfielder Ji So-Yun, winner of the 2010 adidas Golden Ball at the FIFA -20 Women’s World Cup.
Such is Leonessa’s depth that Yoko Tanaka, another star-in-waiting, who was the second-top goalscorer at this year’s U-20 World Cup, only rarely features in the starting line-up.
This week’s action will take place on the outskirts of Tokyo at Saitama’s Komaba Stadium, former home to J.League superclub Urawa Red Diamonds, and indeed Socceroo coach Holger Osieck,
A victory for Canberra in Saitama tonight, means what will be arguably an even tougher challenge in Sunday’s final, with European champions Lyon expected to cruise into the decider past an out-of-form Beleza.
Lyon can lay claim to even stronger track record than Leonessa over recent years. Described by Canberra’s Michelle Heyman, who played against Lyon for Danish Brondby recently in the UEFA Women’s Champions League, as “the best side I have ever seen”, the French side may well indeed be the best women’s club team of all time.
Patrice Lair’s side are currently 59 matches without defeat, having won the last six French titles, and, perhaps more notably, the last two European crowns, breaking Germany’s long-held domination of the continent.
With the financial support of the highly successful men’s club, Olympique Lyonnais, to use their correct title, can field a starting XI entirely comprised of French internationals, supplemented by highly regarded Swedish striker Lotta Schelin.
Results aside, history will likely view Canberra United’s class of 2012 as landmark pioneers. 32 years ago the Intercontinental Cup began in Tokyo featuring a one-off match between the men’s champions of Europe and South America.
The annual contest eventually morphed into the FIFA Club World Cup, and the hope is that the coming few days in Japan will signify another watershed moment in women’s football.
Regardless of the eventual outcome this week in Japan, the benefit to Canberra United and to Australian women’s football will be significant.