Having led her side to the shock win over defending champions Germany, Japan captain Homare Sawa is ready to push through the pain barrier again in tomorrow's semi-final of the FIFA Women's World Cup. The 32-year-old took a painful blow to the abdomen in Saturday's quarter-final, but the 1.64m-tall midfielder pulled herself up to provide the crucial pass just moments later which helped put her side in the last four.
Her long-range pass in the 108th minute found substitute Karina Maruyama who beat her defender and drilled her shot past goalkeeper Nadine Angerer to seal the 1-0 win which knocked the hosts out of Germany 2011. Her performance earned Sawa the player-of-the-match award, but to Japan coach Norio Sasaki she is crucial to her team's chances against Sweden with either France or two-time World Cup winners the USA beckoning in Sunday's final.
"She is the undisputed leader of our team," Sasaki said of Sawa, competing at her fifth World Cup tournament. "She symbolises exactly the style of football our team should play. For 15 years, she has been part of the national team and she symbolises the entire history of women's football in Japan."
At the age of 12, Sawa played her first league game and just three years later, she first wore the jersey of the national team. She has 171 caps for Japan and is a two-time winner of the women's footballer of the year title in Asia. The midfielder is also a threat in front of goal: she netted a hat-trick in the 4-0 demolition of Mexico in the group stages leading their coach Leonardo Cuellar to insist "Japan will compete for the title".
[Homare Sawa] is the undisputed leader of our team. She symbolises exactly the style of football our team should play.
The Japanese brushed off a 2-0 defeat to England in their final group game to inflict the first defeat on Germany since the 1999 FIFA Women's World Cup, but they will have their work cut out against Sweden.
Traditionally, Japanese players are usually smaller and lighter than their European rivals, something which has hindered them on the pitch in the past, having often been brushed aside by more powerful teams.
"Physical contact is always a problem against European teams, which mostly leaves the Japanese players lying on the floor," admitted Sasaki. "But Homare is a player with enormous capabilities in terms of her ability to win the ball and keep possession. She fights for the ball and can immediately counter-attack."
The Japanese have never reached the semi-final of a Women's World Cup and Sawa sees it as her responsibility to help inspire her younger team-mates to win a place in Sunday's final in Frankfurt. "As a captain, it is my task to encourage my players, so they never give up. And I want to teach the younger players something," she said.