Asked by FIFA.com to reveal the secret of Japan’s success at the FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup Costa Rica 2014, where they will play Spain in Friday’s final, central defender Nana Ichise offered this reply: “We are all close friends away from the game and we like to talk things through with each other. You can see that unity when we play. We all defend and attack as one.”
A permanent fixture in the Japan line-up, Ichise is the only player in the side to have been on the pitch for every single second of the five wins they have strung together since the start of the tournament.
Though her form in Costa Rica has been outstanding, Ichise chooses to deflect the praise on to her team-mates: “The reason why we’ve only conceded one goal so far is that our forwards do a lot of closing down and put up a first line of defence that’s very hard for opposing teams to get past. That makes our lives a lot easier at the back, because we tend to regain possession high up the pitch.”
In return for the aid of their frontline, the Japanese defenders have been lending a helping hand up front, pushing forward in numbers to overwhelm their opponents on occasion, especially down the flanks.
“Our two full-backs are strikers with their clubs, which explains why they’re so good going forward,” explained the stopper. “I’m more of a defensive midfielder but I always try to score at set-pieces, which is what I managed to do against Paraguay and Venezuela.”
A midfielder at club level and a centre-back for her country, Ichise is nothing if not versatile, a quality that also applies to her choice of footballing role models: “My favourite male player is Andres Iniesta and among the women it’s Aya Miyama. What I love about her is the way she motivates her team-mates and her strength of character. Her passing and shooting is so precise and she’s good with both feet.”
The business end
Like many young Japanese players, Ichise is dreaming of emulating the generation that won the senior world title in 2011 and Olympic silver a year later.
“My aim is to play with the Nadeshiko at a later stage and take on top teams like USA or Germany in a World Cup or at the Olympic Games,” she revealed. “I want to be part of the team at Tokyo 2020 so the whole world can know my name.”
In seeking to make that dream a reality, the unforgettable adventure she is currently enjoying in Costa Rica and the experience she is picking up along the way will no doubt stand her in good stead.
“I’m learning what it means to come up against players from other countries,” she said. “There are some very fast and powerful forwards around in particular. I’ve come up against some formidable players in one-on-one situations and I’ve learned a lot from those duels.”
The best could yet be to come for the Japanese, with Spain awaiting them in this Friday’s final at San Jose’s Estadio Nacional, a game the Asian side will go into with a psychological advantage, having beaten Las Rojitas 2-0 in their opening match. Despite that encouraging precedent, however, Ichise is remaining watchful.
“We won the first match against Spain but I’m expecting them to be full of determination and to try to get revenge. They’ll be going all out to win the final,” she commented, looking ahead Friday’s showpiece. “We’re just trying to stay grounded, though, and to keep on playing the way we have been doing up to now.”