Having reached the quarter-finals of the FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup on home soil, the Young Nadeshiko are now preparing to face Asian rivals Korea Republic for a place in the last four. As excitement builds ahead of Thursday’s clash, Japan midfielder and captain Nozomi Fujita found time for an exclusive interview with FIFA.com

The diminutive Urawa Reds midfielder took up the game at the age of six, when, encouraged by her parents, she played on the boys’ soccer team at elementary school. Reminded of her first foray into competitive football, Fujita said, “I was hopeless at tennis and other ball games, but football was another matter.” From an early age, her discipline and mobility allowed her to stymie opponents’ attacks, while up front her outstanding technique and ball control made her a natural fit for the Nadeshiko’s ‘pass and move’ style.

Japan 2012 is Fujita’s second appearance at a FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup, having played in the previous edition two years ago in Germany. Unfortunately on that occasion, the east Asian side failed to emerge from a group containing Nigeria, Mexico and England after one win, one draw and one defeat.

The 20-year-old gave an honest assessment of that campaign, saying, “Although we went into the tournament with the confidence that comes with being Asian champions, we didn’t win our first two games. Going out at the group stage was frustrating. I didn’t play well, particularly against Nigeria, when we conceded a goal very early. In truth, we were thoroughly outplayed. However, after facing African opposition, we realised the difference in physical ability, but the important thing is how you play as a team. It’s not just about competing physically – other things are also important.”

Spotlight growing ever brighter
Japanese women’s football has changed a lot in the intervening two years, as the player was quick to point out. “Japan won the Women’s World Cup last year and we also won the silver medal at the London Olympics. Thanks to that, we’re getting attention.” Indeed, for the game against Switzerland at the Tokyo National Stadium more than 16,000 spectators were in attendance. Public interest and expectation are growing all the time, but Fujita insisted the Young Nadeshiko were keeping their feet on the ground. “We can feel the attention, but we haven’t changed,” she said.

With each new experience, Fujita continues to mature as a player, thanks in no small part to the tactical education she has received at Urawa Reds Ladies. “I’m learning that it’s important to keep your composure and pace yourself, while staying attuned to the movement of your opponents and the flow of the game.”

I want to show the fans how much we care by the way we play.

Japan captain Nozomi Fujita

The young midfielder has also improved technically. “The coach has had me practicing turns since I was in the U-15s. Also there are younger players emerging who are better than me, which motivates me to improve,” she explained.

Having played in El Tri’s opening two group games against Mexico and New Zealand, Fujita admitted there were still issues that needed to be addressed. “We did a lot of things well but there were also things we could’ve done better, both before and during the games. By working through these, we’re becoming more like a team, and we deal with problems in a positive way. If we concede a goal, we keep our heads up and continue to play with confidence.”

So how then will she lead the team in the big game against Korea Republic? “I’ll try to make everyone pull together and feel relaxed so they can express themselves on the pitch,” the captain replied.

Yoko Tanaka, who has scored four goals here so far, and Hikaru Naramoto both experienced defeat at the hands of the South Koreans in the final of the FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup in 2010, while Fujita was part of the Japan team that beat the same opponents in the final of the AFC U-19 Women’s Championship in 2009. “I didn’t experience disappointment like the younger players (at Trinidad & Tobago 2010), but I can tell you the Korean players were devastated when we beat them that time. This time I expect them to fight all the way against us.” 

As our interview came to an end, Fujita was in defiant mood, saying: “Every Korean team is very good, but I’m glad to be facing them at this stage. I think we want to win more than they do. From a personal perspective, I want to stifle their attacks and launch counter-attacks of our own. I want to show the fans how much we care by the way we play.”