Sad end to Japanese love affair
© Foto-net

Mana Iwabuchi wasn't the first player to cry at New Zealand 2008 and you can rest assured she will not be the last.

Yet although tears have followed each and every side's exit from this competition, there was something especially heart-rending about the sobbing of a player who had provided such joy to the watching public. Hamilton, in particular, had fallen head over heels in love with Japan's talismanic No10, an outstanding natural talent who on three separate occasions had captivated the northern city with her darting, elusive dribbling and eye-popping improvisation.

So moved were the Hamilton public by Iwabuchi's brilliance, in fact, that as the 15-year-old tried in vain to choke back the tears, one stadium volunteer instinctively gave the midfielder a hug, while another asked the team's interpreter to translate a message of thanks for the entertainment she had provided. At this, the diminutive 15-year-old's sobbing stopped, for a time at least, as she bowed her head respectfully in a gesture that made clear the gratitude was mutual.

Her coach was also quick to acknowledge the backing Japan had received, reacting with delight and pride after volunteers and stadium staff formed a spontaneous guard of honour to applaud his players as they returned, disconsolate, to their team coach.

"That made me very happy," said Hiroshi Yoshida. "It is always very satisfying to know that people have enjoyed and been excited to watch you play football. I must say we have really enjoyed and appreciated all the great support we have received from all the people here in New Zealand. It has been a very special experience."

Yet as grateful as they may be for the esteem and affection of their hosts, Japan did not come to New Zealand to win hearts. Indeed, for Iwabuchi, not even the prospect of challenging for the adidas Golden Ball as one of the tournament's outstanding players can lessen her regret that the Young Nadeshiko will be remembered as the tournament's great entertainers rather than as its champions.

"It would be a great honour if I was considered but I will still be very sad because, even now, I am sad not for myself but for the team," she told FIFA.com. "I wanted the whole team to receive some recognition and reward here at this tournament and now that won't be possible."

That, of course, is not strictly true. After all, while Iwabuchi and Co are not returning home with the trophy, they have earned recognition in the form of glowing praise from observers and opponents alike, with England coach Lois Fidler lauding them as "fantastic" and "stars of the future". Yet such plaudits, though pleasing, do not disguise the sad fact that Japan's New Zealand 2008 story will be remembered as a tale of promise unfulfilled.

So, where did all go wrong? Yoshida, to his credit, declined to seek the refuge of hard luck stories, instead reproaching his players for the wastefulness and complacency they had shown in failing to finish off England when they had the chance.

He said: "It all comes down to the fact we didn't score when we had the opportunities - that is why we are going home. But I also think that, because my players had scored a lot of goals during the group stage, they came into this game thinking they were favourites."

Yoshida's fault-finding was not without foundation, and yet in general the Japanese coach proved as sanguine in defeat as he had in victory, insisting that this setback will help his players challenge for U-20 and senior titles in years to come. "I don't consider this loss to be a negative thing," he said. "I actually feel the players will learn a lot from this and we will see the benefits of that once they reach the senior team."

For Iwabuchi, that step-up looks certain to be made sooner rather than later, and the development of one of women's football's brightest emerging talents is sure to be followed with interest. But what does she herself envisage the future holding? "My dream is to become a great player and to play in the national team," was her response. "And to become a world champion."

If that latter goal can be realised, the cheers from Hamilton are likely to be heard all the way to Tokyo.