Watching the diminutive, mobile and technically gifted Japanese No10 at the FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup 2008 in Chile as she skilfully pulls the strings in midfield, jinks past opponents and strikes slide-rule passes, you might imagine she was bristling with self-confidence, even to the point of arrogance. The blonde streaks in Natsuko Hara’s hair would also suggest the character of an extrovert. But away from the field of play, the 19-year-old from NTV Beleza is the exact opposite.
Modest and self-effacing is the best way to describe the talented playmaker, whose vision and ability on the ball contributed hugely to a 2-0 opening day victory over Canada. However, Hara appears to save her emotional reserves and creativity exclusively for football: "Whenever I play, I want to win. That goes for the tournament here in Chile too. We want to go home with the trophy," the Japanese midfield gem told FIFA.com, although the smile on her face as she spoke betrayed something close to embarrassment at having to formulate such an ambitious goal.
‘I just want to be me’
Hara is a world removed from the typical tempermental genius who often fills the playmaking role. The midfield dynamo, a minor whirlwind on the field of play, is open and frank about her personality. "I’m a bit boring when I’m not playing. I love watching TV. Soap operas are my favourites." Asked if she has an idol - Kaka, Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi perhaps – she answers with a typically impish grin: "No, I just want to be me."
Hara could be the rising star which Japanese women’s football is yearning for. She is arguably the player who best embodies the virtues often associated with her home country. What is certain is that the impressive Japanese urgently require the moments of inspiration provided by their playmaker if they are to pull off a sensational triumph in Chile. The No10 supplies the extra spark in coach Norio Sasaki’s technically able and unquestionably nimble team.
Aiming high, modestly
"We’re delighted we were able to show what we can do against Canada. But we can get better – and we’ll have to, because Germany are stronger than us," Hara says, looking ahead to Japan’s next match. "Canada were physically strong. The Germans are too, but they’re also technically and tactically very, very good."
The Asians are now determined to prove they have what it takes to withstand Germany when the sides meet in La Florida (Santiago) on Sunday. But that is not all: they also want to lay down their credentials as genuine trophy contenders. "I didn’t play well at all against Canada. I’m really hoping I do a great deal better against the Germans," Hara declares. Depending on how you look at it, that could be both a threat and a promise.