The day Japan’s prodigy graduated

Before the Homare Sawa-driven success of Japan at the 2011 FIFA Women’s World Cup™ and Women's Olympic Football Tournament at London 2012, there was an unassuming teenager who grabbed many of the headlines in the Land of the Rising Sun. In 2008 a shy diminutive 15-year-old from Tokyo took the world by storm winning the Golden Ball as the best player at the FIFA U-17 World Cup in New Zealand, despite Japan being knocked out in the quarter-finals. More glory followed with personal awards at continental level, but as well as peripheral roles during Japan’s march to the Germany 2011 crown and London 2012 silver medal.

But despite contributions at senior level the Nadeshiko’s brightest flower never seemed to fully blossom on the international stage. That is until the 87th minute of Japan’s quarter-final against Australia when Mana Iwabuchi popped up to score a deserved winner in a knife-edge encounter that always seemed just one Matildas counter-attack away from Japan losing their crown.

Little wonder that Iwabuchi told after the match that the goal was the biggest highlight of her career to date. “I haven’t scored much for the national team. It was great to score my first at the World Cup, and now I want more. We really didn't have much time (to score a winner), so I was just thinking about scoring a goal. I was glad that I could have some effect on the match. I haven't scored many goals for Nadeshiko yet, so I was hoping to become a player that can come on and do so.”

When I was very young, I did feel some pressure with the attention, but I couldn’t always get the results.

Iwabuchi, a bustling flash of energetic fast feet and swift movement, was a constant menace in a match where both sets of teams were drained by the hot afternoon sun. It proved an inspired substitution by Norio Sasaki, as did some words of advice for the 22-year-old. “When I went to put Mana on I said to her ‘this was her time’, it took a while but she did it in the end,” a smiling Japan manager told the media after the match.

From prodigy to major player Iwabuchi admits that dealing with the pressure and attention she received early in her career proved a challenge. “There is a great difference between underage level and the senior level,” Iwabuchi said. "It has been difficult for me at times, but now I feel I can score much more at this level. When I was very young, I did feel some pressure with the attention, but I couldn’t always get the results. But now I think that now I think I have passed that point in my career."

Japan may yet need all of Iwabuchi’s creative scheming in attack if they are to defend their crown. While Japan have displayed plenty of trademark technical domination, they have been unable to dominate on the scoreboard, winning all five games by a single goal.

“I’m very happy that I can play two more games with this team, and I feel I need to have a stronger desire to win and score. I hope that scoring this goal can take me to the next step.”