For Japanese veteran Homare Sawa, 2011 was surely the best year yet of her impressive career, with the midfielder picking up a raft of titles and personal honours.
Sawa’s participation in the FIFA Women’s World Cup Germany 2011™ was her fifth appearance at the game’s premier tournament. After making her debut in 1995 at the FIFA Women’s World Cup in Norway, the veteran playmaker had to wait another 16 years before claiming the trophy with her team-mates.
However, if taking home a gold medal were not enough, Sawa also made a clean sweep of the individual awards in Germany, winning the adidas Golden Ball for the decisive role she played in leading Japan to the title, and the adidas Golden Boot for her five goals scored in the process.
Barely six weeks after that historic achievement, the Nadeshiko capped a magnificent year by qualifying for the Women’s Olympic Football Tournament London 2012.
“She’s an iconic figure for the Nadeshiko,” said Japan’s women’s senior coach Norio Sasaki, on the importance of the inspirational 33-year-old midfielder to his team and the sport as a whole in his country. “She perfectly symbolises the kind of football that our team tries to pull off. I’d like the whole world to learn about our football through Sawa, that’s why she’s our captain.”
Sawa made her full international debut at just 15 years of age and, fittingly for a player with her strength of character and will to win, helped herself to four goals on her bow against the Philippines. The midfield dynamo has since gone on to appear at three editions of the Olympic Football Tournament (1996, 2004 and 2008) and five FIFA Women’s World Cups™, to name just the most important of the many competitions she has featured in.
Quiet and shy off the pitch, Sawa is a woman transformed once she enters the field of play. Blessed with exquisite technique and vision, as well as the speed and incisiveness to make light of her diminutive stature (1.64m), she is more than capable of weighing in with plenty of goals to complement her middle-of-the-park playmaking duties.
Back in 2001 Sawa took the brave step of travelling thousands of kilometres from home to try her luck in the USA’s Women’s United Soccer Association (WUSA) league with Atlanta Beat, for whom she scored the first goal in the club’s history. After the WUSA folded in 2003, Sawa returned to her homeland to turn out for NTV Beleza, where she remained until another USA outfit – Washington Freedom – snapped her up ahead of the inaugural 2009 Women’s Professional Soccer (WPS) campaign.
Having “improved physically and technically” thanks to her American adventures, in the build-up to Germany 2011 the two-time Asian player of the year (2004 and 2008) went back to the Japanese top flight to sign for current club INAC Kobe Leonessa. And though her class and international success make her one of the division’s superstars, the ever modest Sawa prefers to divert the attention away from her own achievements.
Prior to hanging up her boots to try and start a family, Sawa still has one major mission she would love to complete in the beautiful game: claiming an Olympic gold medal at London 2012.