Forget her timid voice and shy demeanour – Hina Sugita is practically an old hand among her peers. Currently readying herself for the FIFA U-17 Women's World Cup Costa Rica 2014, the midfielder is one of just two players in the Japan squad and 23 overall who are back on the global stage after a first taste two years ago.
Since that initial experience, Sugita has received a promotion as well. Not only has she swapped her No7 shirt for the No10 jersey, she has also been handed the captain's armband, becoming a pillar at the heart of the side thanks to two years of intensive work. "In Azerbaijan, I could feel there was a very big gap between myself and some of the other players in terms of athleticism," she told FIFA.com. "Afterwards, I did my best to improve physically and to be more solid in challenges. I also saw my own limits in terms of technique, and since then I've tried to push them back as far as possible."
If Azerbaijan 2012 was a learning experience, Sugita was not alone in being taught a lesson, however. Japan breezed through the group stage, racking up three straight victories, scoring 17 goals and conceding none, but their promising start was brought to a sudden halt by Ghana in a 1-0 quarter-final loss. "We'd studied videos of Ghana and saw what their qualities were," recalls Sugita. "That didn't stop us being overwhelmed by their pace and power. We weren't able to play our own game and create any danger in attack. I come on in the second half, but, just like my team-mates, there was nothing I could do. They were winning every tackle."
Since that setback, everything has changed for the Young Nadeshiko's most senior player. "Two years ago, I'd come into the team just before the tournament, so I hadn't really found my feet in terms of communication and understanding on the pitch," she says, although she went on to play every game and contribute two goals. "It's different today because I was already part of the team when it was put together last year. Everything's easier now: I know everyone very well and, since I'm the oldest, everyone comes to speak to me. Communication among the players is good, and that has a positive impact on our performances."
Japan's excellent results on the road to Costa Rica certainly seem to bear out that analysis. "We played a very attacking style," says Sugita. "Everyone contributed to our attacks and we created a lot of chances. I think we've added a lot more fluidity to our game, and everything just seems easier." Sugita herself was voted best player during the Asian qualifying tournament, yet typically she felt she could have performed even better. "That honour gave me a lot of confidence, but I was still frustrated by our final against Korea DPR because the level of my play wasn't good enough. That pushed me to work even harder in the following months, especially on the speed of my decision-making."
Her desire to constantly improve has also been bolstered by Japan's failure to qualify for the FIFA U-20 Women's World Cup Canada 2014. "That gives us even more motivation. I'm thinking in particular about Yui Hasegawa, who was in the U-19 team. She really wants to win this tournament to earn revenge for herself and her team-mates." For Sugita and Co, the quest for the title begins against Spain on Sunday, and the No10 is steeling herself for a genuine test of her side's trophy credentials. "We think they're the best team in our group and even the tournament favourites. Either way, they'll be tough opponents, and we'll have to give 100 per cent right from our first match."