It’s not often one has the opportunity to play in a FIFA Women's World Cup™ semi-final, let alone score two goals and outshine your childhood hero. That, however, is exactly the experience enjoyed by Nahomi Kawasumi on Wednesday, with her double against Sweden lifting Japan into their first FIFA Women’s World Cup Final, in what was her first starting appearance at the tournament.
The previously unheralded 25-year-old had made just two brief substitute appearances totalling just 29 minutes, against Mexico and England, before her star-turn against Sweden in Frankfurt. Coming in for the struggling Yuki Nagasato, Kawasumi bundled in a first-half equaliser at the back post to commence Japan’s comeback. The crowning glory, however, was a long-range strike midway through the second period, which all but confirmed Japan’s victory and an appointment with traditional superpower USA in Sunday’s final. With Sweden goalkeeper Hedvig Lindahl out of position, Kawasumi lifted a glorious lob into the net for one of the most spectacular goals of Germany 2011.
“It was my first match that I have played from the start, although I did feature briefly in a few earlier matches, Kawasumi told FIFA.com. “You could say I was able to take all that power and energy that I had saved and was able to put it into the match against Sweden.”
Not that the INAC Leonessa midfielder, used in the forward line against Sweden, is resting on her laurels. “[The biggest match of my career] will be the final,” she said when asked if this was the most important moment of her career. “It [the Final] is the biggest stage in football.”
With a fourth-place finish at the 2008 Olympic Football Tournament and a recent move into the top five of the FIFA/Coca-Cola Women’s World Ranking, Japan are very much a team on the rise. However, their ability to see off some of the traditional giants in the knockout stage, namely Germany and Sweden, have proven that the Nadeshiko’s status among the globe’s elite is a tag well deserved. The team’s brand of passing and their large collection of technically astute players, has seen the Asian side overcome two physically imposing opponents.
Regardless of the result of Sunday’s final, the Class of 2011 will undoubtedly inspire a generation of youngsters in Japan. Remarkably, Kawasumi credits a childhood meeting with veteran captain, and now team-mate, Homare Sawa as a major inspiration.
The results at this tournament have given us a lot of confidence... We have momentum.
“Of course Homare is a major inspiration,” says Kawasumi. “I have a photo from when I was a 12-year-old sitting on the knee of Homare. I can’t believe that I have been playing with her, but that is how I was inspired for the game. I was inspired very much by previous national team players which, in part, is why I am here in Germany. I would be very happy if I too could be a role model for young players in Japan.
“Normally we don’t have a lot of media coverage for women’s football in Japan, but when we have good results such as here in Germany or at the Olympics, people get to know about women’s football. It is an important opportunity to promote the team and the game.”
Japan must overcome a significant historical shortcoming if they are to be crowned world champions for the first time. The Nadeshiko have never defeated USA in 25 matches, drawing on just three of those occasions, with the Americans twice triumphing 2-0 on home soil in May. “The results at this tournament have given us a lot of confidence,” said Kawasumi. “We have momentum and always try to challenge teams, and now we want to try and beat the US.”
Nevertheless, the slightly built Kawasumi is short and succinct when asked how Japan can beat USA for the first time on Sunday: “Strong mentality and teamwork.”