By Michael Church
HONGKONG (Reuters) – Asian Player of the Year Saki Kumagai says the development of club football is crucial to the continued improvement of the women’s game on the world’s most populous continent.
Kumagai, part of Japan’s 2011 World Cup-winning side, this week added Asia’s highest individual honour to an impressive trophy haul that includes six French league titles, one French Cup triumph and four UEFA Women’s Champions League titles.
The midfielder’s success at club level has come since she joined French powerhouse Olympique Lyonnais in 2013 and the 29-year-old would love to see other Asian women given the same opportunity to develop their game at the highest level.
“I play in Europe, in France, and we play in the UEFA Women’s Champions League, where we play foreign teams very often and I think that has enhanced my game as well,” she said.
“I know the AFC and FIFA have established a new competition and I think that’s a very good thing for women’s football, both in Japan and in Asia as well.
“These kind of experiences will enhance their game and we need to continue having these kind of tournaments.”
Nippon TV Beleza last week won the inaugural Asian Women’s Club Championship after teams from Japan, South Korea, China and Australia participated in a FIFA-funded round-robin competition.
It was the latest move to further develop the women’s game in Asia, a continent that has achieved success at global level but which risks being left behind by the current surge in popularity of the game in Europe and the United States.
For the first time since the Women’s World Cup began in 1991, no Asian team managed to reach the quarter-finals of this year’s tournament in France.Japan, finalists at the two previous World Cups, went out in the group stage after losses to two European sides but Kumagai says progress is being made.
“I think the level of women’s football in Asia is growing, especially since I made my debut,” she said.
“You can see this particularly in the youth tournaments where the last four finals you always see an Asian team playing on the world stage.
“I think that shows how far the women’s game in Asia has come. It’s quite difficult to compare the last three World Cups, the one that we won and the last one.
“At the World Cup we played this year we had a fairly young team with inexperienced players.
“As a team that inexperience cost us, I think, but gaining the experience we did at this year’s World Cup can make us into a better team in the coming years.”
Any lingering disappointment from the World Cup campaign has been offset by the recognition she finally earned from the Asian Football Confederation at their annual awards ceremony in Hong Kong on Monday.
“I’ve been nominated a few times before but at last I’ve been able to win this award and I’m very, very happy,” said Kumagai.
“It’s quite difficult to compare individual trophies against team trophies but I think it’s a result of my team’s performance that means I was able to win this award.”
(Editing by Nick Mulvenney and Peter Rutherford)