Japan inspired by recent triumphs
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The question currently on the lips of a Japanese public increasingly enthralled by football is the following: who will be the next Homare Sawa? Hanae Shibata, Yoko Tanaka, Mana Iwabuchi or Kumi Yokoyama?

While the responses vary, something that has remained constant over the past two years is the Nadeshiko’s ability to reach the latter stages of every major tournament they enter.

The list of feats achieved by Japan’s women’s teams continues to grow. A runners-up spot in the final of the FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup Trinidad and Tobago 2010 was followed by a sensational triumph at the FIFA Women’s World Cup Germany 2011™, a silver medal at this year’s Olympic Women’s Football Tournament, and a third-place finish at the FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup Japan 2012.

It is therefore understandle why Japanese expectations are high in the run-up to the FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup Azerbaijan 2012.

Hiroshi Yoshida is one of the figures credited with generating this impressive series of successes. A former professional, named Japanese Footballer of the Year in 1985, he fulfils the dual role of coaching both the U-17 and U-20 female sides.

“My work with the U-17 team is quite different from what I do with the U-20s. I concentrate on the technical side of things with the younger age group, and focus more on tactics with the older girls. U-17 and U-20 are two very different worlds, in fact,” said the composed Shizuoka native, who appears to juggle his two positions with aplomb, and is unfazed by the challenges that lie ahead.

We have a close-knit, united group of players. That’s where the strength of this team lies.
Hiroshi Yoshida, Japan coach

“I’m not going to feel any added pressure because Japan have had some great results in the last few tournaments. In any case, I don’t actually think that our performances have been all that great; we can always do better,” the 54-year-old tactician told FIFA.com with a smile. “We’re here to win, and we’ll do all we can to achieve that aim,” he continued.

Victory at Azerbaijan 2012 would see the Japanese continue the consistent progress they have demonstrated in the youth event thus far. At the inaugural 2008 FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup, they were eliminated in the quarter-finals, while two years later they reached the final in Trinidad and Tobago.

“I feel as if the squad we have this year is even better than in previous tournaments,” remarked Yoshida who, just like his Canadian counterpart Bryan Rosenfeld, will be overseeing a team at the event for the third time. “There’s no doubt that’s an advantage,” he added.

In Sawa’s footsteps
Clearly, the individual talents of his charges will also offer a distinct advantage. During the 2011 AFC Asian U-16 Women’s Championship, which also served as the qualifying process for Azerbaijan 2012, the Little Nadeshiko showed that they were a force to be reckoned with, claiming the crown ahead of Korea DPR and China PR.

“We have a close-knit, united group of players. That’s where the strength of this team lies,” said Yoshida, refusing to single out specific names for praise. Despite this, he will likely look to Yui Narumiya, who won the Player of the Tournament award at the aforementioned continental contest, to inspire her team-mates to glory.

Diminutive yet abundantly skilful, Narumiya will captain the side and spearhead its attack in Azerbaijan. She admits to feeling more nervous than her coach on the eve of the competition, a state of mind that could be explained by a lack of experience at this level.

“I can feel the pressure growing as we get closer to the start of the tournament,” she said, doubtlessly mindful that Japan’s opening game on 23 September sees them lock horns with a formidable Brazil team in Baku.

“They’re the opponents I fear the most. I’d also add Germany and USA to that list, having closely followed the U-20 World Cup that just took place at home, in Japan,” explained Narumiya, before reflecting on her idol, Brazilian legend Marta. “She’s my role model. She can do just about anything: she dribbles, sets up goals on a plate, and is capable of scoring at any moment. But I also admire Homare Sawa a lot.”

Could Narumiya turn out to be Homare Sawa’s rightful heir? “Yes, quite possibly,” responded Yoshida. “But there are other candidates too.”