Japan’s progress to the semi-finals of the FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup 2012 has been in no small part thanks to the efforts of tireless defensive midfielder Hikaru Naomoto. The host nation face a daunting last-four encounter with Germany, but Naomoto is confident the Young Nadeshiko can defeat the reigning champions and book a spot in the final for the first time.
“Germany play with power and speed. If they get the upper hand, it could be a tough game for us, because we’ve got a lot of smaller players,” she told FIFA.com. “But if we can move the ball around and start taking control, I think we’re capable of beating them.”
Naomoto first began turning heads globally at the FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup Trinidad & Tobago 2010. Although Japan lost to Korea Republic in the final, the lessons learned from that defeat have inspired Naomoto to improve herself as a player.
“I’m a better player now. I’m able to receive more passes from our defenders, and my own passing is more accurate. Compared to two years ago, I feel my basic skills have improved,” said Naomoto, who plays for Urawa Red Diamonds Ladies. “It was so frustrating to lose the U-17 final. I still can taste that disappointment. But I think I gained more from losing that game than I would’ve gained from winning it.”
Japan exacted some revenge for that loss by defeating Korea Republic in the quarter-finals here at Japan 2012. Nevertheless, that was not the main thing on Naomoto’s mind before the game. “I didn’t go out there thinking that our opponents were the South Koreans. I was just focused on winning the game so we could reach the last four,” she recalled.
But by her own high standards, Naomoto felt that Thursday’s 3-1 win was not one of her best performances. “They put us under a lot of pressure, so I’d only give myself five out of 10 for that game,” she said.
Naomoto is juggling her football career with her studies at the University of Tsukuba just north of Tokyo, while merely going to training involves a three-hour round trip. However, this level of commitment on and off the field should set her in good stead for achieving her dreams of playing for the national team and a club overseas.
Firmly established as an integral player in this Japanese U-20 team, Naomoto has played every minute of the hosts’ four games at this tournament. She also scored a spectacular long-range goal in the opening game against Mexico and netted from the penalty spot against Switzerland.
Her endless running and ability to launch attacks from deep, not to mention her knack for getting amongst the goals, should therefore ensure the German players keep a close eye on her on Tuesday evening at the National Stadium in Tokyo.
The holders thumped Norway 4-0 in their quarter-final, and have thus far struck 12 times without conceding a single goal. Even so, several Young Nadeshiko players have stated that – if they play their best football – they can defeat their European opponents, which would set up a final against Nigeria or USA.
When asked to sum up Japan 2012 so far, Naomoto’s answer was short and to the point: “I’m just having fun, playing my football.” Japanese fans will be hoping the fun lasts a little longer yet.