Little Tanaka dreams big with Japan

  • Tomoko Tanaka was Japan’s top-scorer in Asian qualifying

  • She scored three of her four goals as a substitute

  • She expects to score crucial goals at Uruguay 2018

Scoring a goal in your debut at a FIFA competition may sound like high hopes for a young player. However, Tomoko Tanaka has fixed her sights far beyond that. The 16-year-old finished as Japan's top-scorer during last year's AFC U-16 Women's Championship in Thailand as her side sealed a place at this November's FIFA U-17 Women's World Cup in Uruguay. Hot off the eye-catching performance, it comes as no surprise that she aims to lift her game to a new level heading into the global event.

"Of course, I want to score goals at the World Cup," the Cerezo Osaka Sakai Ladies hotshot told in a recent exclusive interview. "I especially want to score a goal that will turn the tide of a game when my team might be struggling."

"I will probably get nervous when the World Cup draws near," she said. "But I will try to keep calm. I will work hard to prepare so that I can showcase my best skills in front of the watching world."

Super-sub role Few question her ability to achieve that considering the way she performed during Asia's qualifying tournament. In a sense, Tanaka emerged as one of Japan's biggest revelations en route to Uruguay 2018. Four goals plus two assists were the statistics that she enjoyed as she dazzled spectators with her mazy runs and intricate touches of the ball. All the more impressive was the fact that three of these goals were scored as a substitute.

Tanaka opened her goals account in the opener against Australia, coming off the bench to score twice in the second half to help her side to a resounding 5-0 victory. Tanaka would start the next game against Bangladesh during which she opened the scoring to set Japan on their way to an eventual 3-0 win. But it was in the semi-final clash against Korea Republic that she truly established her role as a super-sub for Japan.

The two sides were locked at 0-0 after the first half in what was a key battle, as the winners would advance to the final and thus secure qualification for the World Cup. Once again, coach Naoki Kusunose sent Tanaka on after the restart and the technical change paid immediate dividends when the dynamic attacker broke the deadlock with her first touch of the ball, catching the goalkeeper off guard with a low shot from 15 yards out.

"I was glad to have fulfilled my tasks as a substitute," she said, reflecting on her performances during the qualifiers. "I didn't let my coach down. In the World Cup, however, I want to play better. I want to be among the starting eleven and play the entire 90 minutes. I want to become a player to make the difference."

Aspirations for perfection The opener against Korea Republic demonstrated her nose for goal. However, the result was nonetheless disappointing with the rivals going on to equalise and eventually prevail on penalties to book passage to Uruguay. And it was her missed spot-kick in the penalty shootout that left Tanaka still lamenting.

"This was an important match so I was happy to put my team in front by scoring the opening goal. But I had myself to blame for missing a penalty," she recalled. "In this (Asian) campaign, I found that I needed to enhance my physical strength. I needed to be tougher on the pitch. I must improve in these areas if I am to play well in the World Cup."

Tanaka made amends for that miss in the all-important match for third place against China PR, having a hand in the only goal which sealed their progression to Uruguay 2018. A fervent admirer of Homare Sawa, Tanaka is hoping to follow in the footsteps of the Japan legend. “Next I will work harder to join the U-20 national team and in the future, I want to become a member of the national senior side."