WE League: A new era for women's football beckons in Japan

Several WE League players with Nadeshiko Japan
Several WE League players with Nadeshiko Japan

The Women Empowerment League (WE League) will sit atop the footballing pyramid, housing eleven teams that have now acquired professional status.

As an overarching objective, the WE League aims to become a driving force for gender equality in Japan. It will also aim at re-establishing the nation's name as a major player on the global stage for women's football. The league's first Chairperson, Kikuko Okajima, has highlighted its long-term vision and fundamental philosophy in recent local publications and press conferences.

The WE League title will be contested over a twenty-game season with teams playing each other twice, both home and away. There will be no promotion or relegation to begin with. Although the organizers have indicated that further expansion is not only possible, but probable.

Unlike the semi-professional Nadeshiko League, the WE League will run adjacent to most European leagues with its season playing from autumn to spring.

Risa Shimizu (NTV Tokyo Verdy Beleza), Mina Tanaka (INAC Kobe Leonessa) and Yuika Sugasawa (Urawa Reds Ladies) are among but a few Olympic stars who will take to the stage for the WE League's inaugural season. Returning from a loan spell with Bayer Leverkusen, Tanaka declared her enthusiasm for the league in a recent interview with an official publication.

"We want to create an atmosphere where supporters of all backgrounds come together and cheer us on. A vibrant crowd is something I really enjoy both at home and away."
WE League: Mina Tanaka in action for Nadeshiko Japan
WE League: Mina Tanaka in action for Nadeshiko Japan

As a fully fledgling professional league, member clubs are required to employ at least five players on professional A contracts and 10 on professional B or C contracts. The minimum salary has been set at 2.7 million yen.

A commitment to nurturing respective youth academies is a further requisite designed to enhance the quality of the domestic women's game. These improvements should ultimately make for a highly exportable footballing product capable of catching the eye of a global audience.

The introduction of professional contracts is surely a step in the right direction. However, there is seemingly a lack of clarity regarding specific modes of employment. Also, about how administrative items such as tax returns and social insurance payments will be handled.

It is not clear if a blanket system is to be put in place by the league itself, or if each club will be handling these issues individually. Urawa Reds Ladies and Nadeshiko Japan forward Yuika Sugasawa is one player who has spoken out on this.

"There are many things to consider when launching a professional league. How will items such as insurance and tax returns be handled for the female players turning professional? WIll this be taken care of by the league? By the clubs themselves? This is best explained sooner rather than later. Is it just me thinking this?! I think a lot of the players that are about to turn pro have concerns."

Taking the WE League to the world

Following a lackluster display at Tokyo 2020, doubts have emerged concerning Nadeshiko Japan's ability to compete with the global powerhouses of women's football. A lack of tactical depth and an automatic physical disadvantage are two of the more common reasons given for the 2011 World Cup winners' underperformance at Tokyo 2020.

Creating more opportunities to play against global talent would go a long way in leveling the playing field. The WE League has wasted no time in this regard. Several clubs have signed players from overseas, many of whom are available for an opening day appearance.

Australian international Alex Chidiac (JEF United Chiba Ladies), Filippina's Quinley Quezada (JEF United Chiba Ladies) and Sarina Bolden (Chifure AS Elfen Saitama) and Singaporean international Siti Rosnani Azman (INAC Kobe Leonessa) are the latest imports who will add an extra dynamic to the Japanese game.

Conversely, several Japanese players have gone on to secure contracts with some of the world's most prestigious clubs. Mana Iwabuchi is now a regular feature for Arsenal in the English WSL while Yui Hasegawa has signed with cross-town rivals West Ham United. Saki Kumagai has completed a move to Bayern Munich after her contract with Olympique Lyonnais ended.

Arsenal v Slavia Prague - UEFA Women's Champions League: WE League
Arsenal v Slavia Prague - UEFA Women's Champions League: WE League

When examining the development of other professional leagues around the world, it is clear to see that the road ahead is far from smooth. Financial backing, coaching resources and fanbase sizes are a few of the variables that are likely to differ greatly from club to club. The landslide scorelines that were commonplace in the Nadeshiko League are also likely to continue for some time while the WE League is finding its feet.

That said, the WE League has managed to secure a highly ambitious broadcasting arrangement with J League rights holders DAZN. Interest from potential sponsors should naturally follow on from this and a profitable sporting property should emerge before long. The stage is seemingly set for Japan to reclaim its status as a diminant force in women's football once again.

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Edited by Aditya Singh
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