Caught in time: the England women’s football team jet off to Japan in September 1981
In autumn 1981 coach Martin Reagan‘s charges made history by becoming the first England national team ever to visit the Land of the Rising Sun.
According to the Japanese FA, the Portpier 81 International Ladies Football Festival tournament was tied in with Portopia ’81, a massive trade fair or “Expo” to mark the completion of Port Island. This was a man-made island built off the coast of Kobe between 1966 and 1981 at a cost of several billion yen. Another island was completed in 1992, only for Kobe to be rocked by a devastating earthquake in 1995.
Matches were played as double-headers, 40 minutes each way. The second round of fixtures was played 300 miles north east of Kobe, in Japan’s capital city Tokyo. The Danish FA (DBU) report attendances of 5,000 in Kobe and 3,000 in Tokyo. England v Italy and Denmark v Japan fixtures do not seem to have been played: perhaps a discreet veil was drawn over them after the hosts’ 9–0 hammering by Italy!
The Italians classed the tournament as an edition of their Mundialito series. And they had no compunction about declaring themselves the winners despite drawing with Denmark and not playing England.
|Date||Venue||Team 1||Score||Team 2||Scorers|
|6 September 15:30||Kobe Central Stadium, Kobe||Denmark||1–1||Italy||Inger Pedersen (32), Betty Vignotto (65)|
|6 September 17:30||Kobe Central Stadium, Kobe||Japan||0–4||England||Angie Gallimore (45, 48), Vicky Johnson (71), Debbie Bampton (75)|
|Date||Venue||Team 1||Score||Team 2||Scorers|
|9 September 17:30||Tokio Nishigaoka Stadium, Tokyo||Japan||0–9||Italy||Carolina Morace, Sandra Pierazzuoli (2), Betty Saldi (2), Betty Secci, Betty Vignotto (2)|
|9 September 19:30||Tokio Nishigaoka Stadium, Tokyo||England||0–1||Denmark||Inger Pedersen (49)|
Excitement and joy was etched on the players’ faces as they lined up for the photocall before setting off from Heathrow. It was to be the first time England had faced opposition from outside Europe.
Nottingham Forest’s Brian Clough had enraged the Japanese in February 1981 by contrasting their hi-tech “television wristwatches” with their failure to “grow some bloody grass”.
Forest lost the Intercontinental Cup 1–0 to Uruguayans Club Nacional on a bumpy, sandy mess at Tokyo’s national stadium.
Ever the diplomat, manager Martin Reagan was more measured: “Quite obviously, the lack of grass pitches will cause great problems in developing their game and will certainly influence their style and tactics.”
In England’s first match, hosts Japan bravely held out until half time only for Angie Gallimore to score twice in the opening 10 minutes of the second period. Johnson and Bampton added late goals as Japan eventually succumbed 4–0.
The players and staff reportedly bopped the night away until 1am in a local disco before jetting on to Tokyo.
The next matchday saw England edged out 1–0 by Denmark. Inger Pedersen, who also got the Danes’ goal in their opening 1–1 draw with Italy, scored a late goal off an assist from the excellent Lone Smidt Hansen (later Lone Smidt Nielsen).
After jetting back to England, WFA chairman David Hunt described the tour as “satisfactory” and expressed pride that in visiting such exotic climes the women had achieved something that England’s pampered male players had yet to do.
Vs Japan (4–3–3): Wiseman (Irvine); Thomas (Johnson), Gallimore, Parker, Coffin (Reynolds); Curl (Coultard), Bampton, Deighan; Doe, Foreman (Hutchinson), Turner
Vs Denmark (4–3–3): Wiseman; Thomas, Gallimore, Parker, Coffin; Curl (Coultard), Bampton, Deighan; Foreman (Hutchinson), Doe, Turner
|3||Gillian Coultard||Midfielder||18||Doncaster Belles|
|5||Janet Turner||Forward||20||St Helens|
|9||Liz Deighan||Midfielder||26||St Helens|
|10||Carol Thomas (née McCune)||Defender (captain)||26||C.P. Doncaster|
|12||Christine Hutchinson||Midfielder||28||Percy Main|
|13||Sheila Parker (née Porter)||Defender||34||Preston North End|
In 1981 Japanese women’s football was in its infancy. The first edition of the national club Championship, the Empress’s Cup, had been played over two days in March 1980 at Mitsubishi Yowa Soccer Club in Sugamo, Tokyo. Eight teams played 25 minutes each way, eight-a-side with a size four ball on a specially marked out 76m X 54m (i.e. 3:4 size) pitch.
The winning team, FC Jinnan, had previously represented Japan in the 1977 Asian Championships; Japan’s first tentative foray into the international arena. They finished bottom of their group after losing 1–0 to Indonesia then being demolished 7–0 by hosts Taiwan.
A proper Japan team was put together for the Asian Championships in June 1981, going out after three first round matches. It cost the players 30,000 yen each for the privilege of going to Hong Kong. Etsuko Handa, who had just turned 16, got the team’s first ever goal in a 1–0 win over Indonesia.
In only their fifth ever match here they found themselves confronted with Carolina Morace and Betty Vignotto—two of the world’s greatest ever strikers—and found themselves a bit out of their depth.
The team will not have enjoyed taking such a pasting in front of their own fans, as the concept of “honour” was still big in Japanese culture. Historically, women even had their own version of Hari-Kari: known as Jigaki, which was ritual disembowelment but with one’s knees primly tied together — thereby avoiding any undignified splayed legs.
Some players stuck at it though, the pioneering Handa played at the Atlanta Olympics 15 years later.
In 1981 the status of Asian women’s football was in a stand off, as detailed in an interesting chapter in Jean Williams’ A Beautiful Game (2007).
The independent Asian Ladies Football Confederation (ALFC) were trying to affiliate to FIFA in their own right, while FIFA were telling them to fall into line under the (male) Asian Football Confederation. The male confederation, guided by one or two influential Muslim bigots in places like Malaysia, wanted nothing to do with women’s football.
In the mid 1980s the AFC accepted women’s football and the Japanese FA appointed a properly qualified coach, Ryohei Suzuki, to run the team in 1986. The 1981 team had been coached by a well-meaning schoolteacher.
Eventually in the 1990s FIFA stopped trying to suppress women’s football and decided to run “official” national team competitions.
Disgustingly corrupt FIFA kingpin João Havelange used his shamed ISL marketing company to run the events and channel sizeable kickbacks into his own bank account.
Japan eventually rose to the top of the tree, winning the 2011 FIFA Women’s World Cup with a dainty brand of tiki-taka which did justice to their “Nadeshiko” nickname.
The info for this article came from Sue Lopez’s indispensible Women on the Ball (1997), Jean Williams’s A Beautiful Game (2007) and the WFA’s match programme for England v Norway 25 October 1981. Luckily the Japanese, Danish and Italian FAs all keep better records than their English counterparts.
On the second matchday Associated Press (AP) issued a three-line press release: “SOCCER TOKYO (AP) – Italy beat Japan 9-0 and Denmark edged England 1-0 in a women’s tournament. Elisabetta Saldi, Sandra Pierazzuoli and Elisabetta Vignotto scored two goals each for Italy. In the second game, Denmark’s Inger Pedersen shot in the winning goal at the 65th minute, assisted by Smidt Hansen.”
Update: Article amended with further info supplied by the estimable Soccer History Magazine (see comments).
- Asian Ladies Football Confederation
- Betty Vignotto
- Carolina Morace
- England women's football team
- Etsuko Handa
- FC Jinnan
- Inger Pedersen
- Lone Smidt Nielsen
- Martin Reagan
- Port Island Kobe
- Portopia 1981
- Women's football
- Women's football in Denmark
- women's football in England
- women's football in Italy
- Women's football in Japan