Homare SAWA (JPN)
Homare Sawa (Japan) Born: 6 September 1978, Tokyo, Japan 205 appearances (83 goals)
One hundred and sixty-five centimetres is all it took for Japanese women’s football to take on a whole new dimension. That is the height of Homare Sawa, the former midfielder who helped the Nadeshiko become one of the major powers of the women’s game.
Sawa was a good deal shorter in stature when the tale of her legendary career began, at the age of six, when she watched her older brother training and was invited on to the pitch by his coach to take a shot at goal. Accepting the challenge, she proceeded to fire the ball into the back of the net, the first of many goals she would score.
The only girl in her local boys’ team and a Japanese first division player at the age of 12, Sawa was a record-breaker from an early age. And in scoring four goals on her international debut in 1993, she merely confirmed her phenomenal promise, which would continue to blossom with every passing year. The reason for that was not just her natural talent, but also her appetite for hard work and her desire to keep on improving. It was a combination that allowed her to climb to the top of her sport and to remain there for more than 20 years. During that time she appeared at six FIFA Women’s World Cups™, between 1995 and 2015, and four Women’s Olympic Football Tournaments, between 1996 and 2012.
The high point of her storied career came at the 2011 world finals in Germany, where Japan belied their pre-tournament status as outsiders to beat Die Mannschaft, Sweden and then USA to lift the Trophy. Sawa, who captained her side to glory, was at the peak of her considerable powers, scoring five goals to win the adidas Golden Boot and also walking away with the adidas Golden Ball. As if that were not enough, it was Sawa who scored the 117th-minute equaliser that took the Final to penalties, where the Japanese would hold their nerve to beat the Americans.
She was still going strong at Canada 2015, where, despite being the wrong side of 37, she came close to winning another world title, only for USA to avenge their defeat of four years earlier in the Final. Nothing short of an idol in her homeland, Sawa announced her retirement a few months later, doing so with the satisfaction of having almost single-handedly taken Japanese women’s football to a whole new level.
FIFA Women’s World Cup winner in 2011
FIFA Women’s World Player of the Year in 2011
AFC Women’s Asian Cup winner in 2014
Silver medallist at the Women’s Olympic Football Tournament London 2012
Eight-time Japanese league champion (1991, 1992, 1993, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2010)
Seven-time Japanese Cup winner (1993, 1997, 2004, 2005, 2007, 2008, 2009)
On the highest point of her career: “It’s very difficult to pick out just the one, but I think the best moment of my career came when we won the Women’s World Cup. We lifted the Trophy a few months after the earthquake, a disaster that brought suffering to so many people. All we did was win a football tournament, but lots of people told us that our victory had given them hope and the courage to keep going. It gave me so much joy to help my compatriots lift themselves.”
After the Germany 2011 final: “This is my fifth world finals and I didn’t do anything particularly special at the previous four, so I’m very pleased with this result. I’ve been wearing this jersey for 18 years, so I’ve had to be patient. Japanese women’s football has been through some difficult times and this has come as a real relief. Even so, I still find it all very hard to believe.”
On winning the 2011 FIFA Women’s World Player of the Year award: “It was like a dream. No Asian player had won it before, so in that respect it was a massive honour. Some players only win this award once in their careers, and others can only dream about it. I was so thrilled when I found out I’d been named the best player on the planet.”
On her influence on the development of women’s football in Japan: “I’ve been playing football for a long time, but it wasn’t until we won the World Cup that things really changed. All of a sudden our sport was in the spotlight. The media showed more interest than ever. A few years ago, people were taken aback when they saw a woman playing football, but now you see young girls playing their favourite sport more or less everywhere.”