Posts Tagged ‘Homare Sawa


Reality check / Nadeshiko fuel expectations, men’s U-23 deflate hopes in pre-Olympic friendlies

Japan’s men’s and women’s teams both played send-off matches at Tokyo National Stadium this week ahead of their respective campaigns at the London Olympics.

After Nadeshiko Japan’s game v. Australia and the Under-23’s match with New Zealand I gathered reaction from the coaches and players of all four sides involved for The Daily Yomiuri.


Panda-ing to the masses

Women’s football in Japan is currently doing very well for itself. Success brings fresh challenges though, and it is important that the game tackles them now if it wants to maintain its popularity …

The first time I watched a women’s football match in Japan – ok, probably the first time I ever watched a women’s football match – was in July 2009, when I saw Urawa Ladies take on Beleza at Komaba.

While I was surprised by the level on the pitch and the number of spectators there (nearly 2,000), it was still obviously far-removed from the men’s game.

The amount of interest didn’t seem much higher when I attended a Nadeshiko training session in Tokyo just before the World Cup, with only a handful of journalists present.

Of course, those experiences contrast greatly to the scenes that have been the norm since Homare Sawa et al returned from Germany as World Champions.

The increase in popularity is positive in many respects, and if that can be maintained then the women’s game could go from strength-to-strength. That is not going to be easy though, and I worry that the majority of people will quickly lose interest.

A fellow journalist provided the best analogy of the current situation when describing Sawa as being “like a panda” – everybody wants to take a picture but once they’ve got it their appetite has been sated and they move on to (insert ice-skater/volleyball player/swimmer here).

For me, the recent tour in Japan by Arsenal Ladies was interesting, as it served as a good marker of a) how women’s football in Japan is being viewed from the outside – away from the hype – and b) how many people here still cared.

In the first instance, things were hugely encouraging, with the Arsenal players genuinely excited to be playing against some of the best players in the world and keen to benefit from the experience.

“The most pleasing thing about watching the Japanese team play [at the World Cup],” captain Jayne Ludlow told me the day before their game against INAC Kobe, “was the freedom and the enjoyment they seemed to have playing the games. “Even in high-pressured situations they were smiling – the penalties was a typical example, they didn’t look like they were under pressure at all and they performed brilliantly. So maybe there’s something to learn from that.”

After the game, too, Jennifer Beattie, who scored the equaliser in the 1-1 draw, also spoke about picking things up from the Japanese players.

“The Japanese style of [women’s] football is one of the best in the world,” she said. “Their technique, their first touch, their range of passing is just unbelievable. And that’s probably something that English football and every other style can learn from.”

The game itself was of a high-standard, and in Nahomi Kawasumi, Shinobu Ono, Megumi Takase and Ji So-yun INAC have some hugely exciting attacking talent.

With regards to b), Over 11,000 people were at Kokuritsu for the match, which suggests that there are still plenty of people there for the game and not just the snapshot.

This is exactly how Sawa herself explained things when I spoke to her ahead of the game. “Initially, of course, it can’t be helped; they want to see famous players,” she said. “But I don’t think it’s just that, I think people are genuinely starting to take an interest in the football.”

In England, too, the media is slowly getting behind the game, but Ludlow still thinks there is room for improvement.

“ESPN do show some of the games, but it can always be bigger and better,” she said. “The more profile we get, obviously with funding, [the better], and hopefully in five or 10 years we can go professional.

INAC’s Yukari Kinga thinks the focus should be at the other end of the spectrum as well.

“At the root, at the bottom,” she said after the game with Arsenal. “The youth, in junior high school, middle school. I hope that it can grow more.

“In America, lots of young girls play football. If that could happen in Japan it would naturally make women’s football stronger, it would go in the right direction. So I feel we need to grow more.”

Things certainly look to be on the up, but the key to longevity is not easy to find. Efforts, such as this Arsenal tour, should be made to secure it now though, or people could soon be moving on to the next exhibit.


Arsenal Ladies get inside look at Japan

The surge in popularity in women’s football was phenomenal in the wake of Nadeshiko Japan’s World Cup triumph in July.

Arsenal Ladies’ trip to the country has ensured that the game remains in the spotlight, and everybody’s thoughts are now on the next steps.


Getting in touch with our feminine side

Nadeshiko Japan didn’t only triumph by winning the World Cup, but they also brought out my softer side… 

They did it! Nadeshiko Japan are the World Champions and I would like to start this week’s column by congratulating everybody involved in Germany – from the coaches and players to backroom staff. What an incredible achievement.

Of course, I knew that they were going to win the World Cup before Saki Kumagai slammed home the historic winner though (and what an incredible strike – the perfect penalty in more ways than one).

No, I didn’t call it before the tournament, and even during the final I had my doubts. The point at which I knew that they had the cup secured, though, was in the break between extra-time and penalties.

Yes, Japan had just snatched defeat away from the US right at the death – with Homare Sawa for the second game in a row making amends for a mistake in the build-up to an opponents’ goal by scoring herself – and while the psychological impact of that certainly affected the American players, that isn’t how I knew.

The moment it became obvious, however, was as the camera panned around between the two sets of players.

The American team were stony-faced and serious-looking. They were huddled together and geeing each other up, back-slapping and high-fiving and generally looking like they had work to do, with all the troubles of the world on their minds.

The Japanese camp was exactly the opposite. The players and staff were laughing and joking, already hugging each other on a job well done and looking completely at ease; they were enjoying themselves.

It was almost as if they couldn’t quite believe they were in this position; how are we just a penalty shoot-out away from winning the World Cup? they seemed to be asking.

Then, it looked like they’d blown it. Everybody gathered into a huddle and Sasaki-kantoku leant forwards, seemingly set to offer some serious words of advice or encouragement. But no! Instead he said something (what, I don’t know) before bursting into laughter along with everybody else and sending them on their way to collect the trophy. Simple.

And simple it was. America, feeling the strain, missed their first three penalties – thanks in no small part to the bundle of energy that is Ayumi Kaihori, who repelled two of them – while the Nadeshiko eased into things with Aya Miyama slotting home one of the coolest, calmest penalties I’ve ever seen. Pressure? What pressure?

Everybody knows what happened next, and while Sawa-san has, quite rightly, been receiving most of the praise since the triumph, I’m delighted that it was Kumagai who struck the decisive penalty.

Throughout the tournament she and her central-defensive partner Azusa Iwashimizu were fantastic for Japan, throwing themselves into tackles, blocking shots and comfortable when bringing the ball forwards to start attacks.

It was Iwashimizu who headed home the winner in the Asian Games final last year, and this time too she made a crucial contribution to the win, with her foul in the last minute keeping Japan in the match.

I’m still not 100% that it was a foul, but she knew that it was worth risking the red card in order to prevent what would surely have been the winner for the US.

The full-backs Yukari Kinga and Aya Sameshima – who I’ve developed a bit of a crush on – were also superb, constantly joining the attacks and causing problems for opposition defences, while the likes of Karina Maruyama and Nahomi Kawasumi – two more crushes – who started the tournament as substitutes, also played key roles at vital times on the way to the title.

America’s goalkeeper Hope Solo said after the final that, “I truly believe that something bigger was pulling for this team. If there were any other team I could give this to it would have to be Japan. I’m happy for them and they do deserve it.”

And this something bigger was the fantastic team spirit within the squad and, most importantly, the fact that they were enjoying themselves.

As well as adding the World Cup to their trophy cabinet, the side also succeeded in helping me get a little more in touch with my feminine side; each time I see the highlights on TV I find myself tearing up.


The Back Post – Reaching the next level

For this month’s column for the Daily Yomiuri I focused on Nadeshiko Japan’s exploits in Germany at the Women’s World Cup.

Former Nadeshiko midfielder and women’s coach Asako Takakura explained how the team has arrived in a position to achieve such success.


Nadeshiko aiming for the top at the World Cup

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.”

     *          *          *          *          *          *          *           *          *          *          *          *          *    

Further comments from Sawa san can be found here, in a preview I wrote for

Receive an email each time I post something new and/or interesting by...

Join 41 other subscribers

Back Catalogue

what day is it?

May 2023