KOBE, Japan -- Japan’s strongest women’s soccer team walked onto its turf field. It was a December morning in the port city of Kobe, and the breeze from the ocean added a biting chill to the air. But the weather couldn’t keep nearly 70 fans away from watching their beloved INAC Kobe Leonessa.
Even if it was just a practice.
Among the players were Americans Rebecca Moros, 27, and Beverly Goebel-Yanez, 24. They’re the only Americans in Japan’s premier women’s soccer league, the Nadeshiko League, and have played in the country since April.
Both came to Japan after the United States’ Women’s Professional Soccer league suspended play in 2012. And although the U.S. has since announced the creation of the National Women’s Soccer League, which will start play in April, both women plan to stay right where they are.
“If I can create the kind of learning experience here where it's not just something that I’ve touched on, but something that's become a part of me, then I can bring it with me wherever I go and use it every day,” Moros said. “Japanese soccer, if it's a part of me, then it'll be in everything I do as opposed to just something I sort of experienced. It'll actually change the way that I live and work.”
Playing professionally in Japan, however, was not always the plan.
“The only idea of Japan that I had was the fact that I had watched their women’s team play against the U.S. several times, and I thought their style of soccer was amazing,” Goebel-Yanez said of her decision to sign with INAC -- short for International Athletic Club.
And it wasn’t always easy.
You get so accustomed to having your career and you're working toward something. So the logical thing for me was, well I'm going to go somewhere else to do it.” -- Rebecca Moros
“As soon as I got here I was like, ‘Wow,’ culturally. And then, ‘Wow, I can’t speak the language,’” said Goeble-Yanez. “I don’t have any clue what the coach is saying, what my teammates are trying to tell me. I haven’t had anything this challenging in my entire life.”
Before joining the Japanese team, the two athletes were content pursuing careers in WPS.
“I could almost not imagine having the league anymore,” said Moros, who played in the WPS all three years of its existence. “You get so accustomed to having your career and you're working toward something. So the logical thing for me was, well I'm going to go somewhere else to do it.”
Moros turned her attention to Japan. She had trained with Tokyo’s NTV Beleza for two months in 2009 and fell in love with the Japanese style of play.
“The quality of the soccer, the number of touches they got on the ball,” Moros said. “It just left a lasting impression on me.”
Less than two months after WPS suspended, Moros and Goebel-Yanez joined a friendly match tour of Japan with Sky Blue FC. They played a game against INAC and, within days, were offered contracts.
“After experiencing the practice and experiencing playing against those girls, I told myself that this would definitely be an opportunity I could never pass up if they offered me to come here,” Goeble-Yanez said.
The two Americans joined the team and moved to Japan in April. In May, WPS officially folded and the U.S. was, yet again, without a professional league.
But Moros and Goebel-Yanez were on a dream team in Japan. In 2012, INAC had seven national team members, four Under-20 national team members, and one member of Korea’s national team. The team also is home to the country’s most revered women’s soccer player, Homare Sawa. The 2011 FIFA player of the year who captained the national team to gold in that year’s Women’s World Cup, making them celebrities across the country.
The city of Kobe is capitalizing on that popularity. In November, Kobe’s municipal government opened the Kobe Ladies Football Center for INAC’s training. The facility is now INAC’s practice turf and cost a reported 280 million yen, or about $3 million, of which about 30 million yen, or $320,000, was raised from public donations. And in December, the Kobe team opened its very own clubhouse on the facility’s grounds.
“This is a special time, and it’s great to be a part of this growing women's sport,” said Tateo Wada, a fan who travels more than 300 miles each way once or twice a month from Tokyo just to watch the team practice.
INAC makes it seem like Japanese soccer is the pinnacle of women’s soccer around the world. INAC owner Hironori Bun is a successful businessman who owns pachinko parlors, bowling alleys and restaurants in Japan. His investment and the support of sponsors means no player has to work outside the team, so they can dedicate themselves fully to the game. But the reality is INAC has far more resources than other teams in the Nadeshiko League, where practices are usually on dirt fields and scheduled in the evenings so players can earn a living from their day jobs.
Takamitsu Sakai, the INAC general manager in 2012, said the team averaged about 6,000 spectators per game last year, with tickets costing between 1,000 and 2,500 yen, or about $11-$27. Their games also were broadcasted on BS Fuji, a major Japanese television station.
“In 1999, the [women’s national team] made a huge wave in the U.S. for women’s soccer, and then it ended,” Moros said. “I don’t know how much longer this wave will ride, but I’m honored to be here now.”