“She’s an icon of the Japanese game. She typifies the football that we’ve been trying to achieve, and having been part of the national team for the last 15 years, she’s well aware of the history of women’s football in Japan.”
Those words, brimming with admiration and respect, belong to Japan coach Norio Sasaki, and they describe his side’s star player, Homare Sawa, who will captain her country at the forthcoming FIFA Women’s World Cup Germany 2011™.
An explosive, technically proficient midfielder, Sawa will be putting her skills at the disposal of the Nadeshiko for the fifth successive time at the world’s premier football tournament. “If I had to choose one of them, it would have to be the first, because I was just 16 when I took part. For me it was a dream come true,” explained the 32-year-old to FIFA.com.
And she was not alone in pinching herself, as Sweden 1995 saw Japan – an ever-present since the FIFA Women’s World Cup began in 1991 – put in their best performance to date in the competition, reaching the quarter-finals. Is the objective for Sawa and her team-mates to at least match that feat this time around?
“It’s never easy to set precise goals, but I hope that we can get through the group stage,” said the INAC Kobe Leonessa playmaker. “I think we’ll have a good tournament. And I’d love to win a medal – whatever the colour, it would be an amazing achievement,” she added.
In the run-up to this year’s event, Japan’s players have felt even more motivated than usual, as fellow midfielder Naomi Kawasumi explained: “After the tragic earthquake in March, many of us encountered problems and were not able to train. I wondered if we’d be able to play in Germany. Thanks to the support we received from all over the world, we’ve managed to make it to the World Cup. And as a sign of gratitude, we’d love to put on a great show while we’re here.”
To do that, Sawa will also need to be at her best. For Sasaki, her ball-winning skills will be key: “Homare has an impressive ability to rob her opponents of the ball and to keep hold of it. When she gains possession she gets the ball forward quickly and aggressively,” he said, adding, “It would be great if people discovered Japanese football via Sawa – that’s precisely why she’s our captain.” Few players in the game could elicit such praise from her national coach.
Sawa, a fan of Spanish midfield maestro Xavi, played in the USA’s now-defunct Women's United Soccer Association (WUSA) with Atlanta Beat and the current Women's Professional Soccer (WPS) league with Washington Freedom, an experience that contributed greatly to her development as a footballer.
“I learned a lot; above all, it made me stronger mentally,” explained the midfielder, who made her debut in the Japanese women’s championship at the astounding age of 12. "When I arrived in 1999 I couldn’t speak the language and I had to adapt to a very different culture. The whole adventure really helped me to mature. On the pitch, I improved a lot too, both technically and physically.
“I first started kicking a ball around with my brother and his friends. Today the squad’s youngest players have talent, quality and a great attitude, and they’re also better prepared when they arrive, because a lot more opportunities are available to them.
“That said, female Japanese players need to keep on developing, building up their fitness and adopting a stronger mindset. They also need to get more experience. There’s still a lot of work to do,” continued the veteran Japanese international, now in the home straight of her own career.
“I haven’t figured out yet when I’m going to retire. Whether it’s after the World Cup or the Olympics, I just don’t know,” Sawa stated in conclusion.
Football fans would be well advised to take in Japan’s group matches – versus New Zealand, Mexico and England – at Germany 2011, because those games may see the iconic international defend the east Asian nation’s blue jersey for the very last time.