Iwabuchi, Japan's young livewire
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Long considered one of Japanese football’s finest prospects, Mana Iwabuchi is fast becoming a shining star in women’s football. FIFA.com turns the spotlight on the precocious forward who has been voted AFC Women’s Youth Player of the Year for the last two years.

“My strengths are my pace and dribbling skills, so unsurprisingly my hero is Lionel Messi. One day I’d like to play for Barcelona,” says Iwabuchi. “I’m also a fan of Atletico Madrid’s Sergio Aguero. As for female players, I admire Marta,” adds the 16-year-old, who like her role models is short in stature (1.53m) but lightning fast.

At the FIFA U-17 Women World Cup New Zealand 2008, Iwabuchi put in a series of outstanding performances, helping Japan to reach the quarter-finals and winning the adidas Golden Ball as the tournament’s best player. This was the first time a Japanese player, male or female, had picked up the prestigious award, and it represented a milestone for the East Asian nation.

My strengths are my pace and dribbling skills, so unsurprisingly my hero is Lionel Messi. One day I’d like to play for Barcelona
Japan forward Mana Iwabuchi.

During the tournament in New Zealand FIFA.com featured a story on Iwabuchi, entitled 'Japan's Mana from heaven' which brought the world’s attention to the youngster for the first time. However, observers of women’s football in Asia had already spotted her emerging talent when she led her team to the final of the 2007 AFC U-16 Women’s Championship in Malaysia.

At this year’s edition of the AFC U-19 Women's Championship in China, she was handed the No10 shirt and went one better, leading Japan to the title and scooping the Most Valuable Player award in the process. That recognition was only fitting, after she scored the only goal of the semi-final against Korea DPR and then fired the winner with three minutes to go against Korea Republic in the final.

Looking back at the event, Iwabuchi says, “Our manager had to scold us because of our inconsistency. There was also a time, against North Korea for example, when all he had to do was tell us to stick to our game plan and we would prevail.” She takes pride in her individual accolade but is quick to pass on the praise: “I think I got the award due to the fact that our team won the title, so I consider this as team effort. I’m really happy about it.”

Freedom the key
For young Mana, one of the key factors behind her emergence has been the “freedom to play”. Reflecting on last year’s FIFA U-17 Women World Cup, she says, “Our brief was to feel free to express ourselves, and that applied to both the team and the individuals. I really enjoyed being part of that group.”

Iwabuchi revealed that the U-20 side was encouraged to decide on their own objective for the FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup Germany 2010 and that the collective decision was “to aim to win a medal. We have become confident because we won the title in Asia, so we are looking forward to next year.”

Looking ahead, the teenager is at pains not to get ahead of herself: “First I’d like to get my strength up to a par with other players, then become a mainstay of the Japan team and perform well at the Olympics. Sure, I dream about playing abroad, but I’m not in a hurry. I’d like to go overseas but only when I’m confident enough. I’d like to turn out for Barcelona.”

Iwabuchi is not the only rising star in women’s football in Japan. Natsuko Hara was the 2005 AFC Women’s Youth Player of the Year and, though still only 20, has played for Japan at every age level. Hara and Iwabuchi both play for NTV Beleza in the L.League, the women’s equivalent of the J.League. Much is now expected of this gifted duo and an improvement on the top-four finish Japan achieved at the Beijing Olympics should not be discounted at the next Women’s Football Tournament in London come 2012.