One of the primary aims behind the FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup when it was launched in 2008 was to introduce the world to the next generation of superstars. Standing above all others at New Zealand 2008 - including future stars such as Dzsenifer Marozsan, Morgan Brian and Lucy Bronze - was a shy pocket-sized 15-year-old from Tokyo by the name of Mana Iwabuchi.
A seemingly innate game-sense, combined with flashy footwork and rare technical ability saw Iwabuchi light up the tournament, despite Japan exiting in the last-eight. With female footballers typically matriculating to senior level faster than their male counterparts, the world seemed at the feet of the teenager.
But while Iwabuchi was present as Japan marched to the 2011 FIFA Women’s World Cup™ crown and the 2012 Women’s Olympic Football Tournament silver medal, she remained largely a peripheral figure in those successes. Now, just as many of Japan’s golden generation are retiring or reaching the twilight of their careers, it seems the *Nadeshiko’s *brightest flower is finally ready to fully blossom on the international stage.
Four seasons in the hurly-burly of Germany’s Frauen Bundesliga - the last two with champions Bayern Munich - have added a new dimension for Iwabuchi, both personally and professionally.
“The style of football is absolutely different,” Iwabuchi told FIFA.comwhen asked to compare football in Germany compared to Japan. “In Germany, the opponents are taller, and there's more speed when we play. Definitely, the experience is having a positive impact on me. In regards to my own play, I have realised that playing in Germany was the right decision for me.
“I'm now more hungry and eager to score, and I'm more comfortable on the pitch when I play for Japan, because I always play against players who are physically stronger. Off the pitch, I'm growing personally by living in an environment where culture and language is completely different from Japan.”
Prospect to prodigy
In some ways that move into a different football environment, mirrors that enjoyed by Iwabuchi when she first stepped into the international spotlight at the U-17 Women’s World Cup eight years ago.
“Having the chance to play at world level when you're young is valuable and important,” Iwabuchi said. “Once you recognise the world's greatest players at international tournaments, you feel that you want to improve yourself more and more.
“One of our team concepts with the Japan U-17 women team was to enjoy the game and play freely, so I really enjoyed the tournament. The opponents we played against also put focus on individual skills and play, rather than attack or defence as a team.”
But how different is the standard between a senior World Cup and one at youth level? “At the World Cup, the level of the individual players becomes dramatically higher,” Iwabuchi said. “In addition, I felt the teams play more as a team and were well organised compared to youth level.”
Still only 23, Iwabuchi now seems ready to hold the baton for Japan as they seek to reach a third successive Women’s World Cup Final in 2019, ahead of hosting the Women’s Olympic Football Tournament a year later.
Iwabuchi played an important role in helping Japan impress once again at last year’s Women’s World Cup. She scored a late winner against Australia - her first at that level - in a tense quarter-final match, a moment she described at the time as the biggest of her career.
“Scoring a goal at the World Cup stage was something special and huge for me. But at the same time, I feel Japan needs to work on lots of things, both as a team and as individuals.”