Japan have been among the most formidable teams in international women’s football for many years now. The East Asian side left the world in no doubt of their sporting credentials by their triumph at the FIFA Women’s World Cup Germany 2011™ and followed that success with a silver medal at the Women's Olympic Football Tournament in 2012. Only the USA were able to bring the Nadeshiko’s latest World Cup campaign to a halt in last year’s final.
The country boasts a similarly impressive track record at youth level. The Young Nadeshiko are reigning world champions at the U-17 level and are currently preparing to defend their title in Jordan later this year. The only Japan youth side still waiting to collect the greatest prize of all are the U-20s, who have reached the quarter-finals on three previous occasions but failed to qualify for another three editions of the competition. Their best finish to date was third place in 2012, when the Young Nadeshiko delivered a string of impressive performances on home turf.
In keeping with the saying: ‘If not now, then when?’, the team’s hopes now rest on the U-20 Women’s World Cup in Papua New Guinea at the end of the year, with several members of Japan’s U-17 World Cup winning squad keen to lift another trophy in Oceania. Among them is Rikako Kobayashi, who was named Most Valuable Player at the Asian qualifying tournament and scored an average of a goal per game on the way to the finals. Despite failing to score from open play during the final, she successfully converted her spot-kick to help her team triumph in the eventual penalty shoot-out.
"We want to win the World Cup," the Japan striker said confidently in an exclusive interview with FIFA.com. "I’m already very excited and looking forward to it. The level of the U-20 team is obviously much higher than the U-17s; there are big differences when it comes to physique and pace." Awaiting Kobayashi’s side in Group B are women’s football heavyweights Nigeria, UEFA Women’s U-19 Championship runners-up Spain, and Canada. "I think the fact that we have already played together at a World Cup finals will give us an edge," the 18-year-old said.
The striker played in five of Japan’s six games on the way to their U-17 triumph in Costa Rica, scoring twice. "Kobayashi is a very technically adept player capable of scoring important goals at any time to help her team succeed," said Japan U-20 head coach Asako Takakura. "While no one knows how far she will actually go in her career, I think she has the potential to make it to the very top if she continues to work hard."
Kobayashi was named AFC Youth Player of the Year in November 2015, an accolade she admits she was surprised yet extremely proud to receive. "I was very nervous in a couple of games at the AFC U-19 Championship and couldn’t really give it my best – but I’m learning from those experiences and trying to use them to improve."
A successful tournament in Papua New Guinea could pave the way for the striker to fulfil her next major ambition and receive a call-up to Japan’s senior international side. Having already demonstrated her potential, the 18-year-old may yet have another ace up her sleeve after her U-20 coach Takakura – who has already made her appreciation for Kobayashi’s talent clear – was unveiled as the new Nadeshiko boss in April this year.