Kids play the ultimate stress-buster for holders Japan
With a World Cup looming and the tag of holders weighing heavily, it seems Japan have been feeling the pressure ahead of Jordan 2016. "The players are young and this is a well-known tournament throughout the world, so it's only natural," admitted coach Naoki Kusunose.
But if nerves are jangling in the Little Nadeshiko camp, you would never have guessed it from the sights and sounds at yesterday's training session in Jordan. Laughter was near-incessant, while beaming grins illuminated the players' faces as they enjoyed a carefree kick-about in the early evening Amman sunshine. And if the their enjoyment was evident, so too was the reason behind the lifting of their spirits.
This was no normal end-of-training match, after all, but an event in which these aspiring stars played with an excited and enthusiastic group of children from Amman's Japanese community. Watching it all was Shuichi Sakurai, Japan's ambassador to Jordan, and he smiled and chuckled along with the rest of the onlookers as these U-17 players thrilled their diminutive visitors.
The tone had been set from the offset, when captain Fuka Nagano, who starred in the team's title win two years ago, welcomed the kids with a warm speech. "We're really happy to see you all here," she said. "Now let's enjoy our time together and have some fun!"
This was a good opportunity for us to do something a little different before the games start.
Fun was indeed the order of the day, with big cheers and cuddles for the goalscorers in small-sided games in which each child's hand was held by an accompanying player. Throughout, Kusunose's young stars took on the role of attentive, affectionare big sisters, embracing and comforting one little girl struck on the nose by the ball and stopping to help and tie the laces of others. Clear throughout was the fact that the players enjoyed the occasion every bit as much as the children, with the hilarity continuing in a penalty shootout in which the local kids took on Japan's theatrical goalkeeping coach.
"It was really good fun," Nagano told FIFA.com afterwards. "We have been training hard and this was a good time for us just to relax and enjoy some time with these children. I think you can see from how we were laughing how much fun we had with them, and this was a good opportunity for us to do something a little different before the games start."
Those matches are never far from the mind, of course, and the event concluded with the children unveiling a banner that read: 'Do your best Japan, and go for the win!' They are unlikely to be disappointed in seeking effort, passion and a relentless pursuit of the title, with Kusunose having made clear his ambition to mount a successful title defence.
Nonetheless, as kick-off approaches for his youthful squad, the coach was thrilled to see them so evidently relaxed. "When their vision is always on the one thing - this World Cup - it is very nice for them to have opportunities like this to relax, laugh and play with the children," he said. "I really enjoyed seeing them have so much fun."