All the talk about Japan at these FIFA U-17 Women’s finals in Trinidad and Tobago has revolved around the likes of Kumi Yokoyama, Mai Kyokawa and Haruka Hamada, sumptuous attackers with velvet feet. Often overlooked in such stylish and forward-thinking teams are those who add the steel, the tough tackle, the edge needed to turn an entertaining collection of players into world beaters.
Hikari Takagi is just one of those ladies, putting her body in where it hurts, wresting control of the ball and delivering it up to the skill merchants so they can do their indulgent business. “One of the best things about my position is that I get a good view of how our attacking players do their job,” Takagi, a deep-lying midfielder who sits just in front of the back four, told FIFA.com. The way they turn and find each other with passes is amazing. Sometimes I feel like a spectator!”
Keen to give credit to the flash players, the sturdy Tokoha Gakuen Tachibana HS player insists there is also a pragmatic side to the team. “We’re not a just a creative team of tricksters,” she said. “When our players lose the ball, they work their socks off to win it back. This is an overlooked part of our game. Defensively we are strong too.”
Takagi blushed when asked about those rare occasions when she makes a foray up the field, but her Japan colleagues have her to thank for hauling them back into the game against holders Korea DPR in the semi-final in Couva. “I was in the right place at the right time,” was the timid assessment of her towering header that drew the game level midway through the second half. The force of the congratulations from her teammates spoke to the high regard in which Takagi is held.
Hiroshi Yoshida’s charges have only conceded two goals since their 4-1 opening-day loss to Spain, a defensive assurance often overlooked in a side that has scored an astounding 17 goals in five games. And Takagi, who began the tournament on the bench but played every minute of both the quarter-final win over Ireland and the last-four defeat of Korea DPR, knows that Japan’s defence is set to face its sternest test yet.
“She is a terror,” said the 17-year-old destroyer, speaking of the tournament’s top scorer, Korean sensation Yeo Min Ji. “She can score a lot of goals as you can see from her performances here in Trinidad and Tobago. We will need to stop her from getting into dangerous positions.”
“It won’t be the first time that I’ve come up against her [Yeo Min Ji],” continued Takagi, who was in the team that lost to South Korea in the semi-final of the Asian qualifiers. “But we will not be afraid,” added the confident midfielder. “We will make sure we don't repeat our mistakes.” Takagi is fully confident of being able to tie up Korea’s main attacking threat and also in the talent of her glittering teammates in attack. “We will be world champions,” she nodded with certainty. “This is not just a dream; it will be a reality.”