Iconic Japan star Homare Sawa finally drew down the curtain down on a glittering career on Thursday. The journey started out nearly 25 years ago and her career proved as productive as it was lengthy.
The accomplishments and accolades were many. Among the headline achievements are a Japan record 205 caps and 83 goals. Above all though, Sawa will forever be associated with what was a breakthrough moment for Japan and, indeed, women’s football in general, as the Nadeshiko unexpectedly won the 2011 FIFA Women’s World Cup™ in style.
FIFA.com takes a look back at five key career highlights for Japan’s graceful No10.
Modest start to a remarkable journey
Women’s football was a very different place back when Homare Sawa made her debut at the Women’s World Cup way back in 1995. Less than 4,000 supporters were on hand in the small Swedish city of Karlstad as a 16-year-old Sawa played the full match against European champions Germany, who won thanks only to a lone goal from Silvia Neid. It may not have seemed it at the time, but this was to be the start of a great journey. Sawa eventually competed in six Women's World Cups and is, along with Brazil's Formiga, one of only two players of either gender to achieve this feat. By the time it was all over, Sawa had played in 24 matches on the grandest stage, scoring eight goals.
A golden German summer
It seems unlikely now, but Japan went into the 2011 Women’s World Cup with a poor record at the highest level. They had just three wins from 16 matches, and one quarter-final appearance in 1995, to show for their five previous Women’s World Cup appearances. By the end of the tournament, they had seen off the likes of Germany, Sweden and USA to claim a thrilling victory. Chief architect and driving force behind the win was undoubtedly the team’s inspirational goalscoring captain. Sawa scored five goals en route to being named Germany 2011's adidas Golden Boot winner as the tournament's leading scorer, as well as adidas Golden Ball winner. Sawa’s 117-minute equaliser in the Final not only ensured the match went to penalties, but also became an iconic moment from this wonderful tournament.
Shining brightest on the domestic stage
It may seem hard to believe but Sawa started out senior club career aged just 12 years old. She spent a total of 13 years with the nation’s most famous outfit, NTV Beleza. She then joined INAC Kobe Leonessa in 2011, with her arrival coinciding with the club’s most fruitful period. Sawa collected an incredible tally of 11 league titles in her career. But it was the immediate period post Germany 2011 which proved a highlight for Sawa and her colleagues. INAC Kobe’s all-star team played in front of several 20,000 league crowds, and Sawa was the crown jewel in the nation’s new-found passion for women’s football. Her image was suddenly found on posters, TV and as part of numerous marketing campaigns. Japanese news website Sponichi Annex even reported fans camped outside Sawa’s house at the height of her 2011 popularity.
Mixing it with the world’s great athletes
Sawa is one of an elite group of players to have featured in four Women’s Olympic Football Tournaments. And she was just shy of making it five upon her retirement, with qualifiers commencing in February for next August’s Rio 2016 tournament. Japan proved that their Germany 2011 triumph was no fluke by marching all the way to the 2012 final, with Sawa once again at her influential best, though this time with Aya Miyama wearing the captains armband. Winning the silver medal was nevertheless a breakthrough achievement. There was to be further milestone success two years later as Japan finally conquered their own continent by winning the AFC Women’s Asian Cup for the first time, with Sawa once again featuring in the final.
Style and grace
The great and good of world football will once again gather in Zurich for the FIFA Ballon d’Or in January. Four years ago Lionel Mess grabbed many of the headlines, but it was Homare Sawa who claimed much of the attention. Sawa may have eschewed convention, but nevertheless she exuded grace on the red carpet by wearing a traditional kimono. Later that night, she became the first and only male or female Asian player to take the globe’s top individual recognition. In many ways the class in which Sawa held herself on that mid-winter night in January 2012 reflected her on-field attributes. Graceful, yet successful.