The Japanese hosts’ warm hospitality, politeness and superb organisational skills at the FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup 2012 have been praised over and over again, but the degree to which the Japan players themselves embody those qualities was demonstrated by a chance meeting at the Tokyo hotel in which all four semi-finalists are staying.
"At midday today, we came into the lobby after a stroll and happened to meet a few of the Japanese players,” revealed Germany captain Ramona Petzelberger, speaking exclusively to FIFA.com in the very same place. “They greeted us is a really friendly way - in German. We had a bit of a chat, and I have to say it was a blast."
But by kick-off time at 19.30 on Tuesday 4 September, the new-found friendships will be put aside for a minimum of 90 minutes, because when the hosts meet the holders at Tokyo National Stadium, both are aiming at the same target - a place in the final.
“I'm really looking forward to the match, which is a clash between equals," Petzelberger declared. The likeable 19-year-old does not share a commonly-held opinion that the match would have been a more fitting final than a last-four encounter. “If you want to be world champions, you have to beat what’s put in front of you, regardless of when," she continued.
The Germans have been in sparkling form so far, winning all four of their matches with 12 goals scored and none conceded. Maren Meinert’s team set a new record in the quarter-finals, becoming the first to emerge victorious from 11 straight FIFA U-20 Women's World Cup games. “It's definitely been a good team performance so far, but I'm not completely satisfied with the matches against Ghana and USA. We can still improve, and the same goes for me personally. I could do better," the captain mused.
Petzelberger is as confident on the field as off it. An accomplished interpreter of the crucial holding midfield role, she dictates the pace of a match and pulls the strings for her team. On top of that, she is eloquent and comfortable in expressing her opinions. Even in the build-up to the tournament, she was tipped for greatness due to a rare combination of abilities, both disrupting an opponents’ play and imposing her own team's authority.
The Essen-born player, a U-17 and U-19 European champion in 2009 and 2011, has already made more than 60 Bundesliga appearances for Bad Neuenahr. She was named best player at the UEFA European U-19 Women's Championship in 2011, and has switched to big-name top-flight club Bayer Leverkusen for the new season, during which she will begin studying psychology in next-door Cologne. It is a subject which may prove helpful out on the field of play, as Petzelberger herself says.
The only major setback of her stellar career so far came two years ago, when she was forced to withdraw from the FIFA U-20 Women's World Cup 2010 in Germany due to an ankle injury, sustained agonisingly enough during a kickabout at school. She was obliged to watch her team-mates’ triumph from afar. “I was gutted, because my biggest dream was to play at a World Cup," she acknowledged. “But I've made up for it now, and I'm even doing so as captain, which is terrific."
However, there is no doubt that the Germans face their biggest test so far on Tuesday. On the one hand, Japan are in equally impressive form, and on the other, the setting represents new territory for the junior Germans. Organisers expect a crowd in excess of 30,000, comfortably the highest for a single matchday at the tournament so far, but Petzelberger remains unfazed by the prospect.
“I'm really going to enjoy playing in front of so many people. And we've also found out that lots of Japanese fans like Germany a lot, so I think we'll have plenty of support," she said.
The Europeans certainly respect their opponents, but are in no sense overawed. “Japan are comfortable on the ball and pass well. We'll have to keep it tight, and pass our way forward at speed when we win possession," concluded Petzelberger. "We'll need to use our quality at set plays and on crosses, and then we'll have a good chance. If we adopt the right attitude and play to our potential, Japan will find it hard to beat us.”