Tanaka leads next generation of Japan heroines
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Japan’s stunning march to the world crown at last year’s FIFA Women’s World Cup in Germany was built around technically gifted players, along with a possession-based brand of football. And the nation’s showing at the recent FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup Japan 2012, which resulted in a third-place finish, suggests that Japan’s systemic approach across their various national teams will continue to pay dividends.

Leading the charge amongst the next generation of stars is midfielder Yoko Tanaka, whose link play with the forward line was integral to the Young Nadeshiko’s success. The diminutive Tanaka is every bit the archetypal modern Japan player with, her exemplary close control, accurate passing and high work-rate. Indeed, Tanaka is a graduate of the JFA Academy, and the evidence is that her style of play fits the Japan template like hand in glove.

The fact that the 19-year-old collected the adidas Silver Boot at Japan 2012 for her six goals and two assists, adds further weigh to claims that Tanaka is set to be a Nadeshiko star at the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup and beyond. The youngster was only narrowly edged out of the top goalscorers award at Japan 2012 by Korea DPR’s Kim Un-Hwa, with the North Koreans’ tally boosted by a five-goal haul against Argentina, whose defence proved to be the most porous in the competition.

Future stars
Remarkably, Japan’s success on home soil during last month’s tournament was achieved without two of the nation’s brightest stars. The highly decorated Mana Iwabuchi - adidas Golden Ball winner at the 2008 FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup - was omitted from the squad, having competed for the senior team at the 2012 London Olympics just prior to the tournament. The other major absentee was Mai Kyokawa, the team’s captain, who starred in qualifying and whose five-goal haul helped her to the AFC U-19 Championship’s most valuable player award, and also the top goalscorer crown.

Kyokawa, however, suffered a serious knee injury just prior to the tournament, while playing alongside Tanaka at Nadeshiko League champions INAC Kobe Leonessa. The pair, who now live near each other in Kobe, having also been colleagues at the JFA Academy, are “close friends” as Tanaka stated. “My role [at Japan 2012] was to make up for her loss and to score the goals that she provided to the team,” Tanaka told FIFA.com.

Tanaka certainly delivered for the Young Nadeshiko, famously scoring a pair of sumptuous free-kicks from outside the penalty area against Switzerland; one with the right foot and one with the left. Tanaka’s football hero, Spain and Barcelona midfielder Andres Iniesta, seems, based on their playing similarities, an inspired choice.

Prior to linking with INAC Leonessa, Tanaka spent a lengthy period at the JFA Academy, which was based in Fukushima until last year’s devastating earthquake and tsunami struck. Tanaka was out of the country at the time, and was not able to have her personal possessions delivered until two months later.

It meant that Japan’s group matches at nearby Miyagi proved particularly poignant for Tanaka. “I did my best to help those people who suffered so much,” said Tanaka. “I hope that we lived up to the expectations of people.”

Champion influences
The budding star does not need to look far for inspiration on a regular basis, with a remarkable seven INAC Leonessa team-mates being current world champions following Germany 2011, including, most notably FIFA Women’s World Player of the Year, Homare Sawa. “I really admire Homare,” said Tanaka. “She led the nation to a great achievement by her performances and leadership in every game.”

With such a star-studded roster it is little wonder that INAC Leonessa are currently on track for a second successive national league title. Tanaka is, for now, enjoying learning her craft alongside some of the nation’s greats, but the youngster has grander long-term ambitions.

“I want to be a full-time professional footballer, said Tanaka with a quiet steely determination that seemed in contrast to her pocket-sized 47kg frame. “I want to end up at one of the top clubs in the world.”