FIFA Women's World Cup France 2019™

FIFA Women's World Cup France 2019™

FIFA Women's World Cup

Utsugi: I feel that I need to step up

Rumi Utsugi in action for Japan.
© imago
  • Rumi Utsugi is one of Japan's most experienced players
  • She was a member of 2011 Women's World Cup champion team
  • The defensive midfielder speaks exclusively with ahead of France 2019

The narrative that will most likely be spoken about Japan at the FIFA Women’s World Cup France 2019™ will be about the youthfulness of the squad. Success at U-17 and U-20 Women’s World Cups in recent years certainly shows that there is talent coming through, ready to be tested at the highest level.

However, while youthful enthusiasm can be a positive quality for any team, when it comes to major international tournaments, it needs to be balanced out by players who have been there and done that.

Look no further than Rumi Utsugi. The 30-year-old defensive midfielder has played in three World Cups and is a tangible and important reminder to every young player in head coach Asako Takakura’s side that the “impossible” is possible; they can become champions because Utsugi has already done it.

She was on the podium that night in Frankfurt on 17 July 2011 when Homare Sawa lifted the World Cup trophy in the air as Japan stunned giants USA 3-1 on penalties in the Final to become the first Asian nation to win the World Cup. That triumph was hugely significant for the country, especially amidst national tragedy following the catastrophic Tohoku earthquake and tsunami that devastated Japan earlier the same year. It cannot be understated how important that 2011 championship was for the future of women’s football in the country.

A peripheral figure in the 2011 squad, Utsugi then got back to becoming a regular starter – as she was at China 2007 – four years later at Canada 2015, leading the team back to the decider, only to lose out 5-2 to the USA.

Not only will her World Cup-winning experience be vital to the squad, but Utsugi spent six years playing for Montpellier, where she became the first Japanese player in the French top flight. She now plies her trade for Seattle Reign in USA's National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL), playing with and against many players that will feature at France 2019.

Before the Nadeshiko land in France and kick off in their opening match against Argentina at the Parc des Princes in Paris on 10 June, caught up with Utsugi to talk about the state of the team and how she views her role in it eight years after that life-changing evening in Frankfurt. What kind of impact did the 2011 World Cup win have on women’s football in Japan?

Rumi Utsugi: Before 2011, we had a much smaller population of women who played football in Japan. But since our victory in 2011, we have more players aspiring to become professional or just to play football for fun. I’m so pleased that the women’s football population has grown so dramatically in Japan since then.

How does the team we expect to see in France differ from the one that won in 2011 and were runners-up in 2015? How would you describe the side now?

We’ve got a lot more young players in the squad now and obviously the coach is different as well. So, everything feels new. I think, for upcoming tournaments, one of our strengths will be that we all have a shared perspective. That said, you can see individuality from different players, which is quite exciting and motivating. From a personal standpoint, I feel that I need to step up.

How would you describe the Japanese style of play and what you as a team want to achieve on the pitch?

The Japanese style is typically centred on organisation and intelligent movement, so we’ll try and combine those with creative ideas and fresh thinking, which are especially evident in the younger players in our squad. These should be our strengths and I hope we’ll be able to demonstrate them in our team play.

What does it take in training, and how much hard work is it, to play that way?

Most of the national team are currently playing in the Japanese league, so it’s easy for them to communicate with each other on a regular basis when training at club level. So, even when they’re at their own clubs, each player has a good understanding about the national team style. For example, they can have a two-hour high intensity training session with the national team in mind.

However, for those of us who play abroad, the national team is a very special place. It’s a different environment from where we normally play. Moreover, Japan play a quite specific style of football, so it’s important for us to be able to visualise how we should do that when playing (for Japan). While it’s obviously important to be in good shape physically, I tend to focus on having a clear mind and being mentally ready.

Do you see yourself as a leader in this team? It’s a young team, so do you enjoy taking on that role?

For me personally, as a professional footballer you tend to have far fewer opportunities where you can actually ‘enjoy’ your role. But I try and enjoy those moments when you face challenges and difficult tasks in as far as I can. As a senior player, of course, you feel more pressure, and I do take that responsibility more seriously as I get older.

Would you rather win but not play in the way you want to as a team, or lose but know that you played your best game tactically and technically?

It is a very difficult question to answer as they are polar opposites. Playing for your national team, you’re representing your country and therefore results are always going to be important. However, at international level, you need players who can do both – play and demonstrate their own style while still getting results. Otherwise you shouldn’t be in the squad.

I believe that the players who are here representing Japan are able to say: 'I’m doing both to 100 per cent of my ability.' So, I’m proud that I’m versatile enough to have the intelligence and physicality to do both of these things.

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