Yuki Nagasato becomes first woman footballer to play in a men’s team

Japanese footballer Yuki Nagasato joined Hayabusa Eleven on loan from NWSL team Chicago Red Stars until 2021.

Yuki Nagasato is a FIFA Women’s World Cup winner with Japan in 2011

A profound quote reads like this: Dreams are never just dreams. They are reality waiting to happen.

Nagasato explored an opportunity, acted in time and made it happen. She will be playing competitive football with men.

The forward had to bide her time before getting the chance to compete with the men. But in doing so, she’s gone on to do what only a few could have imagined.  

A World Cup winner in 2011, the attack-minded player scored 58 goals for Japan Women before retiring from national duty in 2016. She also represented the Japan side that won a silver medal at the 2012 London Olympics. 

Such a decorated career to rest on so she’s got nothing left to prove to the world, right? We thought so too, but she didn’t.

“I thought I could show that women can also play in a men’s team,” she said at a news conference. “I want to help create a community where there is no boundary regarding gender or race.”

She joins Hayabusa Eleven,  a semi professional men’s football team in the local Kanagawa League’s second division. Chicago Red Stars, in a statement said that her loan will run until the beginning of the 2021 NWSL preseason.
She’s been with the Chicago-based side since 2017, scoring 8 goals and providing 8 assists last season.

The Kanagawa League is regional and is played at a much lower level than Japan’s flagship J-League. But the thought behind making the switch from the United States to Japan still appears straightforward.

She gets to fulfill her ambition and also spend time in her hometown of Atsugi, just southwest of Tokyo.

Elder Brother cum mentor cum genie 

Genki Nagasato, an ex J-League footballer currently plies his trade at Hayabusa Eleven. He was pivotal in facilitating the transfer, almost becoming an agent between the team and his sister. 

“For over a decade she’s been telling me that her ultimate dream is to play in a men’s team,” Genki said. “So, as an older brother, I wanted to help my sister achieve her dream.”

By influencing the deal, Genki has helped open up a new possibility. An alternate consideration to how football can be played in the future.

Inspired by Megan Rapinoe 

Nagasato hasn’t hidden her lifelong desire to test herself in a men’s team. That reflects in her gender equal stance. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that she seeks inspiration from USWNT captain and 2019 Ballon d’ Or winner Megan Rapinoe.

“It was very inspiring to hear the social message about gender inequality and other messages that Rapinoe was trying to deliver during the [2019] World Cup,” Nagasato said. “So I have been thinking about how I can do the same.”

Rapinoe is an advocate of gender equality and has campaigned for equal pay for men and women footballers.

At 33, Nagasato is not getting any younger but she feels that her performance is getting better with experience.

She’s humble enough to admit that joining a men’s team will be an unusual, if not difficult challenge. 

“Honestly speaking, I don’t know how well I will be able to play on the men’s team, but I will do my best to make the most of my experience,” she said.

Yuki Nagasato playing for FC Potsdam in the Bundesliga Frauen

 Wary of Egos 

Imagine being the forward player who has to sit out of a match to make way for Nagasato in the starting eleven. It can be hard to accept that you’re losing your place to a woman in what is traditionally a male dominated sport. 

Nagasato knows that a lot of work would need to go into integrating and gelling with a men’s team. Different training methods, the physicality and the pace at which they play will take some getting used to. But as she said, it’s a challenge she’s looking forward to. 

Intergender T20 match

IPL team Royal Challengers Bangalore had floated the idea of an inter-gender T20 match.

As part of their campaign for Royal Challenge Sports Drinks, Virat Kohli would play with Indian women cricket stars like Harmanpreet Kaur, Mithali Raj and Veda Krishnamurthy.   

Sadly, the proposed game never saw the light of the day. The BCCI declined permission to their players to take part in an exhibition game. 

Promotions had been aired for the campaign, titled #ChallengeAccepted even before a date had been announced. 

Much like Yuki Nagasato, Harmanpreet Kaur had fearlessly declared her willingness to play with the men. Quoted in a statement by RCB, she said, “People say that women’s and men’s cricket is not equal because we are not able to face the same challenges on-field. To all those fans, I want to say that neither does the idea of facing a ball at 150 kmph daunt me, nor do I worry about the size of the stadium while hitting a boundary.”

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