They are world champions and brought hope to a nation reeling from a natural disaster, but Japan’s female Olympic footballers had to make do with economy class seats during their gruelling flight to Europe this week, while the less celebrated men’s team relaxed in business class.
The issue surrounding “Nadeshiko Japan”, who lifted the women’s world cup in Germany last summer, began soon after they arrived in Paris on a Japan Airlines flight from Tokyo.
“I guess it should have been the other way around,” Homare Sawa, the team’s star player, told Japanese media. “Even just in terms of age, we are senior,” she joked.
The team are due to play a warm-up match against France on Thursday before flying to London. Their first Olympic match is against Canada, in Coventry, on 25 July, in a group that also includes Sweden and South Africa.
Sawa, 33, who will be taking part in her fourth Olympics, noted that the team had been awarded business class seats after they won the world cup in Germany last July.
That proved to be an exception: the Japan football association [JFA] has since reinstated the practice of putting female players in economy class, although they were given a little extra leg room in premium economy during the flight to Paris, thanks to their status as potential medalists.
The team received a heroes’ welcome on their return from Germany last summer. Their victory was a rare bright spot for the people of Japan, who were still reeling from the 11 March tsunami, in which almost 20,000 people died, and the Fukushima nuclear accident.
Sawa and other players were feted with commercial deals, made numerous TV appearances and became the first sports team to receive the people’s honour award from the government.
The most effusive praise came from JFA president Junji Ogura: “The players have showed the brilliance of Japanese women,” he said.
While the women set off for London days after an effortless 3-0 victory over Australia, the men failed to impress with a dull 1-1 draw with New Zealand.
Nadeshiko are being talked about as gold medal prospects in London, but the men face a difficult opening fixture against Spain, followed by matches against Morocco and Honduras, and are not expected to win a medal.
Japan’s Olympic committee pointed out that most of the country’s Olympic athletes, as amateurs, are required to fly economy, with exception made for judoka and other physically large competitors.
Well-known athletes often get round the rule by upgrading with help from their sponsors, but that isn’t an option for players in team sports aiming to preserve the esprit de corps.
The JFA said the men’s football team had been given business class seats since the Atlanta Olympics in 1996 in view of their professional status.
Sawa, who won the golden boot as top scorer in Germany and was named Fifa women’s world player of the year in 2011, suggested that the team’s best chance of securing a more comfortable flight back to Tokyo would be to win gold in London.
“When we won the world cup, our seats were changed to business class for our return flight,” she said. “I hope we can produce a good result again and be treated the same way.”