After FCR 2001 Duisburg breezed into the semi-finals of the German Women's Cup with a 7-0 victory over FSV Gutersloh 2009 on Sunday, one player came in for particular praise: Kozue Ando. The Japanese international netted a hat-trick for the three-time competition winners and appears to be thoroughly enjoying life since moving to Europe in 2010.
"Germany is renowned for its good football and they're pioneers of the women's game, in terms of organisation, training and development," the 29-year-old told FIFA.com in an exclusive interview. "If you want to develop in my sport, Germany is the place to be."
Having tasted cup glory and the semi-finals of the UEFA Women's Champions League in her maiden campaign at FCR, Ando is understandably hungry for further success this season.
I secretly hoped we might win a medal, but I never would have thought we'd win the title!
"We're still involved in all competitions, which not many people expected at the start of the season. Even so, we know what we're capable of. We're in contention for the league and the cup, or at worst second place in the league and qualification for the Champions League. We'll achieve at least one of those targets, I'm sure of it. Of course it would be nice to win a trophy."
Ando's ambitions almost seem modest considering her triumph on the biggest stage of all during the summer, the 2011 FIFA Women's World Cup™. "I'll never forget the moment they handed us the gold medals and the trophy, nor the amazing atmosphere in the stadiums. The German fans were brilliant and supported all the teams," said the midfielder. "I secretly hoped we might win a medal, but I never would have thought we'd win the title!"
Much has changed for Ando since Germany 2011, not least in terms of the intense media interest in her career. Federal President Christian Wulff even invited her on his recent trip to Japan. "I probably wouldn't have got the invitation if I hadn't won the World Cup," she conceded.
Perceptions of the national team have also taken on a whole new dimension back home: "The change has been massive. Before the World Cup there wasn't much interest at all, but winning the title changed everything. There's a lot more interest from the media and many more women are coming to games and getting involved themselves. We used to be happy if 1,000 came to watch a league match before the World Cup. These days it's not unusual to have 10,000 turn up, sometimes even 20,000 – it's incredible."
What is more, Japan's impressive record in qualifying for the 2012 Olympic Women's Football Tournament in London suggests the Nadeshiko will be around at the top for some time to come. The Japanese confirmed their quality once again at the final qualifying tournament in Jinan, China PR, winning four of their five matches and drawing the other after Korea DPR snatched a stoppage-time equaliser.
Unsurprisingly, Ando can hardly wait to be involved at London 2012: "Naturally I'm really looking forward to it. Who doesn't dream of taking part in the Olympic Games? Of course we'd like to win it, and the expectation levels back home are correspondingly high after our World Cup success. It's part of the Japanese mentality to always want to win."
One of my New Year's resolutions is to make further progress with my German because I want to meet more people in Duisburg and make new friends.
Nonetheless, Japan's relatively narrow margins of victory in qualifying also showed how far the women's game has developed in Asia over the past few years, with various countries now capable of mounting a serious challenge. "Women's football has been given an enormous boost over the last few years," explained Ando. "As we all know, Japan won the World Cup and qualified for the Olympics along with Korea DPR. These are the fruits of that development. The progress made by Australia has also helped keep the competition growing in our region."
Before she can begin to dream of further successes with the Japanese national team, the PhD student is focused on making 2012 a year to remember at FCR 2001 Duisburg.
"Of course I want to stay healthy and help the team achieve its goals. FCR are my family now and everyone wants to make sure their family do well. I'm very grateful for the hospitality and friendliness I've been shown by the club and I'd like to thank everyone at FCR Duisburg for that. Sometimes it's hard to get my gratitude across due to the language barrier. One of my New Year's resolutions is to make further progress with my German because I want to meet more people in Duisburg and make new friends."
Anyone who encountered Ando at the 2011 FIFA Women's World Cup will know that she is unlikely to face too many problems there.