Football has always been about bringing people together and the FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup Japan 2012 is no exception.
In the run-up to the tournament, the Mexican delegation have been based in Miyagi, where they took the decision to invite a group of Japanese children to attend one of the squad’s training sessions, a gesture of goodwill to the host nation and one that might inspire some of the next generation of female footballers.
After giving the eager students their first lesson in Mexican football, the players handed national flags to their guests then posed with them for pictures. Ryosi Takahashi told FIFA.com just how much the day meant to him and his friends.
“I’m so happy to be here today,” the 12-year-old said. “The Mexico men’s side won Olympic gold and I reckon the women can do well too. I came here to talk to the players and find out how they train. I hope that one day I can be a famous player like Inter Milan’s Yuto Nagatomo.”
Japan 2012 is the fifth time Mexico have competed for the youth football crown, and head coach Leonardo Cuellar believes that his side’s encounter with Miyagi’s school children will stand them in good stead in the coming days.
“Having the children here today was a beautiful experience that made us all very happy,” Cuellar said. “I love everything about Japan. The food, the culture: everything! I’m positive this is going to be an incredible tournament not just for us, but for everyone.”
“Our first match is against the hosts,” continued the 58-year-old former Mexico international. “We know the tournament won’t be easy but the most important thing is to maintain our self-belief throughout. At the last World Cup we proved ourselves, but our supporters won’t be happy if we let our standards drop in Japan.
In the lead-up to the first game, Cuellar’s charges have been training hard and their coach expects a lot from them: “I was appointed two months ago, and from the first day my focus has been on getting the girls ready to compete here. I know them all well and I’ve the utmost confidence in them. Furthermore, I carefully study all our opponents, their tactics and so on, then I think about the best way to play them.”
More importantly, coach Cuellar has his players thinking the right way: “We work together as a team. We’re unselfish and serious, because we’re hungry for the challenge and determined to win more titles. I have every confidence we can take some important lessons away from this tournament that will stand us in good stead down the road.”
History suggests El Tri will need their newfound self-belief. Their Group A opponents are Japan, New Zealand and Switzerland, a formidable line-up at the best of times, and the Mexicans will be only too aware that they have never made it past the quarter-finals in four previous tilts at the title.
Perhaps their biggest advantage this time around is experience, with Cuellar able to call on several veterans of international competitions. Tanya Samarzich, for instance, represented Mexico at the FIFA U-17 Women's World Cup 2010, and fellow forward Sofia Huerta, midfielder Natalia Gomez Junco and goalkeeper Cecilia Santiago are all veterans of past battles.
We don’t have stars in this team. We play as one and we play to win.
That said, the coach is adamant that the newer players also have a vital role to play: “Of course, the experienced players have to support their team-mates but I have faith in every one of them. Sometimes in big tournaments the veterans feel enormous pressure to perform and they can’t step up. Instead, you find some unheralded player astonishing you with her courage and self-confidence and playing out of her skin. It’s hard to make predictions, and anyway we don’t have stars in this team. We play as one and we play to win.”
Talking of experience, this will be Natalia Gomez Junco’s second FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup. Junco, who has been playing the game since she was four years old, is certainly looking forward to the competition: “I’m thrilled to be here,” said the bubbly 19-year-old, “and I can’t wait for the tournament to start. Before we flew over we went to a Japanese restaurant to familiarize ourselves with the food. It was great,” she smiled, “but I didn’t see real sushi until I got here!”
The diminutive midfielder, who hopes to study engineering in the United States, is expecting an intensely competitive tournament: “We’ll play every match like it’s the final. Our first goal is to get past the group stage and the other teams will be hoping to do the same. They’re all good sides and that’s why we want to play them. We’ve trained well, are ready for the challenge, and I’m hoping and praying we can go far at Japan 2012.”
Goalkeeper Cecilia Santiago echoed her team-mate’s sentiments: “After today’s training session with the school children we all felt really happy. It’s an amazing feeling to have them watching us play and ask for our autographs. It made us really proud.”
“We’ll give everything we have got – that’s for sure,” she concluded: “We intend to really perform at this tournament!”