Japan have been playing some of the most stylish football of these FIFA U-17 finals in Trinidad and Tobago, and goalkeeper Eri Hirao has had one of the best vantage points to assess the East Asians’ smashing performances. “Our defence is very well balanced,” she told FIFA.com after the tense 2-1 win over Republic of Ireland in which she played a pivotal role. “But our attack is our strongest point,” she went on. “When we are playing with the ball on the ground, very few teams can match us.”
Though they only finished third in the Asian qualifying campaign, the Japanese showed tremendous composure in their win over the Irish. “We knew they were good on set-pieces and shooting from long-distances,” she said of the European runners-up. “So we were very careful to keep a close watch on them.” In the two previous games Hirao conceded no goals, while her teammates in attack bagged an astounding 12, with Kumi Yokoyama establishing herself as “the best player in the team,” according to coach Hiroshi Yoshida.
“I screamed for the ball, but maybe the noise of the crowd made it difficult for me to be heard,” was the keeper’s blushing assessment of the breakdown in communication which saw her clear directly into Hikari Tagaki’s legs, allowing Denise O’Sullivan to steal in and score an equaliser for the Irish early in the second half. “But it’s important not to look back and focus on the things that have already happened. You need to move forward.”
Hirao seemed to be in the middle of all the action on Friday, even in attack. Midway through the second period and with the tireless Irish finding a foothold, she booted a huge punt up the field. Yokoyama, who Hirao describes as “simply amazing,” managed to get hold of the ball, round Ciara O’Brien and fire to the top corner. No one was more relieved than the goalkeeper, who raced out of her penalty area to celebrate the winning goal. However, the soft-spoken and modest captain still needed to be on her toes to keep Ireland from grabbing another equaliser late.
With coach Noel King throwing everything forward in a frenzied attack, the Japanese rearguard was under heavy pressure in the dying moments. When Stacie Donnelly collected the ball five yards from goal eight minutes from the end, it looked surely that the girls in green would force extra time. But Hirao had her say, throwing herself at the ball to complete her transformation from goat to hero and rescue the result for Japan. “I was able to keep thinking ahead and not worry about the mistake I had made earlier in the game, and this is what made it possible to make the big save in the end.”
“Of course I am happy with Hirao,” said coach Yoshida with a smile after the win. “She made a mistake, but then she saved us in the end, so I can forgive her.” The boss will surely be hoping for fewer errors and more heroism in the next game, a crucial test with a familiar Korea DPR side. The North Koreans edged mighty Germany in their quarter-final and now must be considered favourites to regain the title they earned at the inaugural finals two years ago. And although Hirao admits the Koreans are “very strong,” she is confident Japan’s passing game and attack can win the day. “Of course I think we can become world champions; I am sure of it,” she concluded with an impish grin.