Japan midfielder Yui Hasegawa is loving every minute of the FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup Costa Rica 2014, as she told FIFA.com the day after her side’s 2-0 quarter-final defeat of Mexico. “It’s a fantastic experience,” she said. “It’s a really beautiful country and we feel very settled here.”
Speaking in the idyllic surroundings of the hotel where the competition’s four semi-finalists are all staying, by the side of a beach affording stunning views of the Gulf of Papagayo, Hasegawa is entitled to feel pretty pleased with life at the moment. “If there’s one thing I do miss, then it’s Japanese food,” she smiled. “I’ve brought a few things here though, including miso soup, so I’m fine.”
The Japanese No8 is not here to soak up the scenery or assess the merits of the local cuisine, however. Her mission is to land a trophy that both she and team captain Hina Sugita have already had one attempt at winning, having formed part of the side that came up short in the quarter-finals at Azerbaijan 2012, a disappointment she is determined to atone for.
“Two years ago we had a really good passing game, playing one- and two-touch football,” recalled Hasegawa, who had a big part to play in that campaign, chalking up two goals and two assists, a tally she has matched in her side’s first four games at Costa Rica 2014.
Reflecting on Japan’s 1-0 defeat to Ghana in Baku two years ago, she said: “It showed me that football is a sport in which you have to score goals. If you just settle for playing well and keeping the ball, without putting it in the back of the net, then you can’t win. I share my experience with my team-mates and that’s the message I’m trying to get across.”
It looks to have been received loud and clear. Japan have outscored everyone in Costa Rica, racking up 17 goals to date, with no fewer than ten of their players getting on the scoresheet. “I think the difference from two years ago is that the players we have now are a little more skilful, a little more able to tilt the balance individually, to go on a run and score.”
Every side that has come up against the Little Nadeshiko has found that out for themselves. Hasegawa and her team-mates have been in unstoppable form, slicing their way through opposing defences with ease and proving rock-solid at the other end of the pitch. Yet to concede a goal, the Japanese are also the only side in the competition to have avoided picking up a card.
That flawless disciplinary record owes something to the innate sense of fair play of Hasegawa and her compatriots and the movement and elusiveness they are known for, qualities that are actively nurtured in Japanese football as a means of countering physically stronger opposition.
Japan can expect just such a physical test when they come up against a robust Venezuela side in Monday’s semi-final in Liberia. Looking ahead to that game, she said: “We know we are smaller than them, which means we have to play to our own strengths. We’re used to it, though, because almost every team we play against is physically stronger than us.”
Spearheading the Venezuelan challenge will be their in-form strike duo of Deyna Castellanos and Gabriela Garcia, though as Hasegawa explained, Japan have no intention of changing the tactics that have served them so well to date: “We always play the same way: we compress the space, close down the opposition’s passing angles and put pressure on the player in possession.”
With only two goals conceded so far, La Vinotinto boast a defensive record that is almost as good as Japan’s. Nevertheless, Hasegawa believes she has what it takes to break through the Venezuelan rearguard.
“I’m a good dribbler and I love to play short passes and move,” she said, wrapping up our chat. “I'm a good reader of the game too and I cut out a lot of balls. As long as I’m able to use all those skills, I think I can cause them quite a few problems.”