Utsugi: The Olympic final loss motivates Japan

Japan’s seemingly inexorable charge to the FIFA Women’s World Cup Final Canada 2015™ has garnered attention for the team’s headline names. But behind every star there is inevitably an unsung team-mate contributing. One such player is Japan’s defensive midfielder Rumi Utsugi.

The No13 cuts a distinctive figure at the heart of the Nadeshiko’s midfield. Amid a team of largely small-framed, quick-footed players, the tall, pony-tailed Utsugi has the look of a long-striding 400-metre runner as she relentlessly moves up and down the field, offering support in both attack and defence throughout the 90 minutes. Her unflagging commitment and teamwork was recognised with a Live Your Goals Player of the Match award in the hard-fought 1-0 quarter-final win over Australia at a sun-baked Commonwealth Stadium in Edmonton.

Six straight wins have lifted Japan into their second successive Women’s World Cup final against USA. Utsugi was part of the squad which famously defeated the Stars and Stripes on penalties four years ago. She was nevertheless a peripheral figure at Germany 2011, taking the field briefly as a substitute just twice during the early stages of the tournament. By her own admission, Utsugi made only a modest contribution to that iconic success, but now she is ready to realise her own footballing dream.

“As a Japanese, I was very proud to be there and gain a wonderful experience but, as a footballer, regret was the feeling I had in my heart,” Utsugi told FIFA.com about her memories of the Germany 2011 decider. “All the other players in the team took me to that stage, but I could do nothing .”

“However, I am here now because I had the experience over the past four years since 2011. Now I feel I have come to the right direction, after the accumulation of success and failure down the years.”

Standing in the way of Japan’s attempt to emulate Germany and achieve back-to-back conquests are USA, who are second on the FIFA Women's World Ranking. The Stars and Stripes reversed their painful Germany 2011 defeat by claiming Olympic gold at the expense of the Nadeshiko a year later in London.

“One thing that's different from 2011 is that Japan now has the experience and the sorrow of losing in the Olympic final against USA,” Utsugi said. “I'm so excited to face them in the final. All 11 players on the pitch have the mood, aura and awareness that they can make something happen. They know in their heart that they are special, and at this kind of tournament that can lead them to a good result.”

Living the dream Utsugi has certainly taken the path less travelled to achieve her dream. In 2010 he left her native Tokyo to join Montpellier, becoming the first Japanese female player to do so. Since then the likes of Saki Kumagai and Ami Otaki have followed in Utsugi’s trailblazing footsteps. Five years on Utsugi is still at the southern club, is fluent in French and has achieved the basic rationale behind her move – "to gain experience and become hardened physically.”

Though only 26, Utsugi is in her tenth year in a Nadeshiko jersey and is now very much a permanent fixture in Norio Sasaki’s side. She says, though, that she has much more to give.

“I believe I'm still in the growth process and I want to develop more and more,” Utsugi said when asked if she is in career best form. “Every day I remind myself so that I don't have regrets at all and, in this way, I can say that I'm now in the best condition.”

That dedication towards achieving excellence – so typical of Japanese footballers’ mentality – has taken Utsugi to the most elite stage in world football. And when Utsugi steps out at Vancouver’s BC Place on Sunday, it will be the long-awaited culmination of a childhood dream.

“My first dream was to be a football player,” Utsugi said. “I also had a dream go all over the world, and a dream to play in the World Cup.”