Though neither Japan nor their star attraction Homare Sawa have been in scintillating form at the Women's Olympic Football Tournament London 2012 so far, you will not hear many people willing to write off their chances of adding a gold medal to the world title they won in Germany last year. The Nadeshiko and the inspirational Sawa are too good for that to happen.
In the last few years the Japanese have built slowly but surely from youth level, putting together a skilful and highly efficient side that caught most people off guard in taking the FIFA Women’s World Cup Germany 2011™ by storm. In the blink of an eye they had become the world champions, while also boasting the finest player on the planet in Sawa.
Underdogs and dark horses no more, the Japanese went into London 2012 as genuine favourites, the first time they have been handed that tag at a major tournament, not that their star act believes it will make an awful lot of difference to their chances of success.
“I don’t think our opponents will be treating Japan very differently to the way they did before the World Cup,” Sawa told FIFA.com in an exclusive interview. “All the same, they do know us better now and a few countries have studied us closely.”
Though Norio Sasaki’s disciplined and hard-working side have failed to shine in London so far, squeezing past Canada 2-1 and playing out goalless draws with Sweden and South Africa, it would be foolish to bet against them picking up their game in the latter stages of the competition, especially given their recent record.
“We’ve worked hard together on ironing out a few things we’ve noticed in the games we’ve played up to now,” said Sawa, singling out Japan’s normally impeccable passing game as an area they need to improve in. “It’s a question of each player making the right decision in each situation. I think we’ll step it up because our players have got a lot of technique. We’ve achieved our first objective, which was to reach the last eight, and I feel we’re getting better and better.”
The reigning world champions will face a truly stiff test of their credentials in Friday’s quarter-final against Brazil in Cardiff, where Sawa will face off with Marta, whose long run of five consecutive FIFA World Player of the Year awards she ended in 2011.
The Nadeshiko skipper is playing down all talk of a private duel, however: “We bumped into each here in Cardiff only the other day, when Brazil were setting off for London, and we had a chat about nothing in particular. Obviously Marta and Cristiane are two of Brazil’s key players, but they’ve got a lot of other good footballers we need to watch out for. We need to start the game focused and play well in defence.”
Though London 2012 is the 33-year-old Sawa’s first major competition as a world champion, it could well turn out to be one of the last of the midfielder’s career.
“I said before the Games that this would probably be my last Olympics because of my age,” said Sawa, a veteran of Atlanta 1996, Athens 2004 and Beijing 2008 – where Japan achieved their best ever finish of fourth – and of five FIFA Women's World Cups. “I still think it will be my last Games, but I’ll only start thinking about the other major tournaments after London.”