FIFA U-17 Women's World Cup Jordan 2016

13 November - 1 December

FIFA U-17 Women's World Cup 2016

History beckons for Nagano ahead of Rojita reunion

© Getty Images

Of the 336 players who arrived in Jordan for the FIFA U-17 Women's World Cup, one stood out. Fuka Nagano was special, and what made her special was that she already had what the other 335 craved: a winner's medal.

A couple of weeks on, with the semi-finals looming and 252 of those young hopefuls having headed for home, the Japan midfielder is still standing. More than standing, in fact, she is edging ever closer to taking her place in history as the first player to lift this trophy twice.

But while Nagano is marked out by virtue of being a world champion, she is barely recognisable from the player who helped Japan take the title in 2014. Back then, she was the youngest player in the Little Nadeshiko squad, distinctive for her short hair and diminutive, slight build. She was a key player all the same, starring in all six matches of Japan's record-breaking campaign. Nonetheless, Nagano looked - and played - very differently to the strong, mature and composed skipper who has been seen pulling the strings for the holders at Jordan 2016.

"In Costa Rica, I was one of the babies of the team," she toldFIFA.com. "This time it's different: I'm the Sempai. I feel good about that. I like being one of the older, more experienced players, helping out where I can with the younger ones. And I learned a lot from how I was treated by the older players two years ago."

In seeking out the player from that 2014 side she would most like to emulate, there are a couple of obvious clues. Nagano, after all, has returned to this tournament not only as Japan's captain, but having switched her No15 jersey in Costa Rica for the No10 here. In doing so, she has taken on both the shirt and armband worn by the 2014 edition's adidas Golden Ball winner, Hina Sugita. She did not assume either, though, without being well aware of the accompanying burden.

She said: "I think every young player dreams of one day being captain, and most No15s would also like to be the No10. I was the same, but I also saw that you must earn and deserve this responsibility. In Costa Rica, there was a lot of pressure on the shoulders of Sugita and she handled it very well. I have to do the same here."

I think every young player dreams of one day being captain, and most No15s would also like to be the No10. I was the same.

Sensational as Sugita was two years ago, she wasn't the first Japan No10 to star at this tournament. Mana Iwabuchi had earlier led the way, performing so brilliantly in the inaugural edition in 2008 that, despite her team exiting in the quarter-finals, she too won the Golden Ball.

Nagano, therefore, has plenty to live up to. "The No10 is a special number in Japan, and throughout football, and I'm proud to wear it," she said. "I'm especially proud because great players like Iwabuchi and Sugita have worn it before me."

In truth, Japan's current No10 plays a more deep-lying role than either of her predecessors. This is borne out by the fact that, while the Little Nadeshiko are Jordan 2016's top scorers with 16, Nagano has still to find the net. The skipper has nonetheless played a pivotal role in establishing the midfield dominance that has underpinned their stylish successes, and she has enjoyed every minute.

"I think we've done some great things as a team already," said the 17-year-old, who cites Andres Iniesta as her idol. "I'm very happy with how the tournament has gone. But we know we need to refocus again very quickly because the game against Spain will be our hardest yet."

In making this prediction, Nagano speaks from experience. Her debut at the 2014 edition came against the Spanish, and when Japan reached the final, *La Rojita *were lying in wait once again.

"It goes without saying that I have very good memories of playing against Spain," she said, reflecting on the fact that both matches were won 2-0. "They were a very strong team in 2014 - really tough - but we had a great side too and we kept getting stronger as the tournament went on.

"I have seen Spain's matches here, though, and it's clear they're going to be very tough opponents for us. The positioning and movement of their players is particularly good. That said, I believe in my team's strengths too.

"How this Japan team compares to the one in 2014 is hard to judge. Each has its own strengths. For me, the main difference is that the 2014 team got to the final and won, whereas we're still only in the semis. Until we achieve what that team in Costa Rica did, we can't say that we fully measure up."

Nagano sets a high bar. Then again, if anyone in Jordan knows what's required to make a mark at this tournament, it's Japan's No10.

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