In the end the pressure proved too much for the Little Nadeshiko. Heavy favourites to claim the crown at the FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup Azerbaijan 2012 after winning all their group games without conceding a single goal, the Japanese were unable to find a response to a solitary strike from Ghana’s Sherifatu Sumaila in their quarter-final clash.
And when match official Kateryna Monzul blew her whistle to signal the end of an intriguing last-eight encounter, a huge weight of sadness descended on this talented crop of Japan starlets.
“After the group phase everyone was talking about how great Japanese football was and how we were going to be champions at this World Cup,” said their visibly deflated captain Yui Narumiya, who graciously took the time to speak to FIFA.com after the Ghana reverse.
“I’m really pleased that our football was rated so highly by fans and experts alike, though that did pile extra pressure on our shoulders,” added the No9, widely considered to be one of the finest players on show in Azerbaijan, before giving her verdict on the victorious Black Maidens: “They’re really quick and they go in very strongly for challenges, which perhaps intimidated us a little bit. In my case at least, I struggled to overcome that fear.”
The African side thus made history by becoming the first CAF representatives to reach the last four at this competition, managing to make their superior physical prowess count while nullifying the Young Nadeshiko’s eye-catching short passing approach.
Favourites’ tag weighs heavy
“It was the first time we’d played against an African team, so it was a new experience for us,” continued Narumiya, while her coach Hiroshi Yoshida, without seeking excuses, again highlighted the physical disparities between the two squads. “Clearly, our players are smaller, which made it a very difficult game for them, but even so we were expecting this kind of tough match,” said Yoshida.
Japanese skipper Narumiya also stated that her and her squad-mates were perhaps guilty of a measure of overconfidence, on the back of their flawless Group C campaign: “After racking up such big scores in the first phase [Japan scored 17 in total without reply], we may have taken our foot off the pedal a bit.
“It’s not that we thought it’d be easy to reach the final, but we didn’t think our remaining games would be so difficult,” she went on, with refreshing honesty. “We thought we’d just be able to go out there and play our football without worrying too much about our opponents.”
There is no point crying over spilt milk, however, as the saying goes, and coach Yoshida – also in charge of his country’s U-20 women’s set-up – is already looking towards the future.
“We only slipped up once at this tournament but we paid a very heavy price, though I’m hoping my players learn from this match. This World Cup is not easy to win and I'm confident the experience they’ve gained here will help them learn and improve ahead of upcoming championships, such as the U-20 World Cup in two years’ time.”
What is more, should Narumiya and Co need a positive omen for the future, they simply need look back at the New Zealand 2008 edition of this competition. On that occasion a Mana Iwabuchi-inspired Japan also won all of their group-phase encounters, only to suffer a dramatic penalty shoot-out exit at the hands of quarter-final opponents England.
Now, however, at the age of just 19, Iwabuchi can point to a winners’ medal from the FIFA Women’s World Cup 2011™ and a silver from this year’s Women’s Olympic Football Tournament.
Quite an example for this particular crop of Little Nadeshiko to follow and, if they can indeed learn the lessons from their Azerbaijani adventure, a bright future surely awaits them too.