The Japanese women’s football team – Nadeshiko Japan – got their World Cup campaign up-and-running on Monday with a win over New Zealand. Before the side left for Germany I spoke with captain Homare Sawa about her aims and expectations for the tournament.
People inside and outside of the country have been getting very excited about Japanese football recently, with the nation finally seeming to make an impact on the global game.
While Nagatomo and co. become the poster-boys of this development and are, quite rightly, being lauded for their success though, I wonder how many people can name the Japanese player who has already played over 160 times for the country and appeared at five World Cups?
Well, that is exactly what Homare Sawa achieved on Monday, as the Nadeshiko beat New Zealand 2-1 in their first group game of the 2011 Women’s World Cup in Germany.
Sawa, now 32, made her first appearance at a World Cup finals back in Sweden in 1995 at the age of just 16, and having spent half of her life as an international footballer she believes that this year’s competition will be her last.
I spoke to the Nadeshiko captain last month as the side trained in Akabane, where she was very open and friendly and spoke of her desire to make this World Cup her most successful.
“This time my situation is different from other World Cups, the first time I was only 16 years old, the youngest player,” she said. “But now I have grown in experience so this time should be the best World Cup for me. I think this will be my last time.”
The thought of the Nadeshiko at a World Cup without Sawa seems a little strange (it has only happened once, after all), but the women’s game, like the men’s, is going from strength to strength and the next star of the side will be taking to the field alongside Sawa in Germany this year.
Mana Iwabuchi, who is juggling her University studies at Komazawa Joshi Daigaku with her blossoming football career at NTV Beleza, is being broken into the team gently, but while great care is being taken with her development there is no mistaking the undoubted talent that she possesses.
I asked Sawa if, having made her World Cup debut at a similarly young age, she had any advice for the 18-year-old Iwabuchi, and she looked a little surprised at the suggestion and laughed.
“Not at all; of course not! Nothing specific but I would like her to enjoy this World Cup and to enjoy the experience and everything that goes with it.”
When I press a little more she insists that the young striker does not need any special tips, having already appeared in several international tournaments at youth level.
“This time is senior so will be different but she already has lots of experience playing in world competition. Full national team and the younger ones are different, of course physically, height and weight and physical strength, but also the mental side, the intelligence of the players.”
Iwabuchi showed very few signs of being troubled by these aspects at last year’s East Asian Football Federation Championships, grabbing two goals against Chinese Taipei, and I ask Sawa what she thought of the youngster’s instant adaptation to the full national team.
She breaks into a smile and says, “In my first game I scored four goals though, against the Phillipines! Then I was 15…”
While this is, of course, spoken in jest, such friendly banter can serve just as well as – if not better than – serious advice to motivate young players, and having Iwabuchi on top form going into the tournament, along with fellow strikers Shinobu Ono – who was top scorer when the Nadeshiko won the Asian Games gold last year – and Yuki Nagasato, will be vital if the side are to achieve Sawa’s goal of exiting the World Cup with a medal.
Having failed to get through the group stages in China four years ago this will be no mean feat, but with the tournament set to be Sawa’s last World Cup she intends to give everything for the cause, and I genuinely hope she succeeds in her aim.
“It will be very, very difficult to get a medal in the world tournament,” she said, before concluding typically, “but we will try. I think nothing is impossible so we will try.”
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Further comments from Sawa san can be found here, in a preview I wrote for the-AFC.com.