TOKYO: Japan’s first professional women’s football league kicked off in upbeat mood Sunday, despite Covid fan restrictions, looking to make “heroes” of its players and inspire a new generation. A decade after winning the 2011 Women’s World Cup, Japan has fallen behind in the women’s game which is becoming more popular and lucrative around the world. But organisers of the 11-team WE League believe it can provide a platform for talent to blossom, and tap into growing enthusiasm for the game across the Asia-Pacific region ahead of the 2023 World Cup in Australia and New Zealand. “The WE League is the stage where everyone becomes a hero,” league chairwoman Kikuko Okajima said during a speech before Tokyo Verdy Beleza took on Urawa Reds Ladies in one of the opening day’s five fixtures. Games were subject to attendance limits, with Tokyo and other parts of Japan still under a virus state of emergency. Only home fans were allowed to attend Beleza’s match against Urawa, and cheering and chanting were strictly banned, with mask-wearing mandatory. But almost 2,500 turned up to watch the game at Beleza’s small but cosy stadium, and the mood before kick-off was one of anticipation. “I want people to see that women’s football can be more dynamic than men’s,” 11-year-old Beleza supporter Yui Tamai saidbefore the match. “Men’s football gets all the attention, but I think women’s football will gradually start to get more interest.” Fans were treated to a lively, end-to-end encounter, with eight players from Japan’s Tokyo Olympics squad among the starting line-ups. Japan’s 2011 World Cup win made household names out of players like Homare Sawa and turned the team into national heroes. But only 3.3 percent of registered Japanese players are women, and the number of female players has stayed roughly the same over the past 10 years. Japan have also slipped to 13th in FIFA’s world rankings, and failed to reach the quarter-finals at the last World Cup. The WE League short for Women Empowerment aims to lay the foundations for change on and off the pitch. All clubs are required to have at least one female coach, while half the staff and one decision-maker must be women.