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Sawa’s achievement sets new benchmark for Japanese game

by Andrew Mckirdy

There was never any doubt that Homare Sawa would be named Women’s World Player of the Year on Monday, but the significance of the award to the Japanese game still cannot be overstated.

Sawa ended the five-year reign of Brazil’s Marta and also saw off the challenge of U.S. striker Abby Wambach to claim the prize at FIFA’s Ballon d’Or ceremony in Zurich, becoming the first Japanese player ever to be officially recognized as the world’s best in either men’s or women’s categories. National team manager Norio Sasaki was also named Women’s Coach of the Year and the Japan Football Association won the Fair Play Award, but on a night when Japanese soccer commanded the world’s attention, it was Sawa’s star that shone brightest.

After the year she has just had, few would argue with the judges’ decision. Sawa won both the Golden Ball for best player and Golden Boot for top scorer as she led Japan to a historic triumph at the Women’s World Cup in Germany, playing the captain’s role to perfection with a crucial late equalizer in the final to set up a penalty shootout win over the U.S.

Sawa’s skill, technique and intelligence were plain to see throughout the tournament, but it was her determination and refusal to accept defeat that left the deepest impression. Nadeshiko Japan faced stronger and bigger opponents as the competition progressed, but Sawa made sure her younger teammates remained undaunted and welcomed the responsibility as the stakes moved ever higher.

The World Cup victory was a fitting reward for a player who began her international career as a 15-year-old in 1993, but what was striking was Sawa’s unwillingness to be satisfied with what she had achieved. No sooner had the team returned to Japan than the veteran was targeting gold at the London Olympics, and suggestions that success in Germany would provide the perfect fairy tale finish to her career were given short shrift.

That mental profile was a good fit on the winner’s podium alongside men’s recipient Lionel Messi on Monday, and Japan can feel rightly proud of producing a player to stand alongside him as the world’s best.

The fillip it gives the women’s game in this country is obvious. Sawa provides a focal point not only for a sport that has long struggled to attract attention, funding and respect, but also for the thousands of girls who now have unequivocal proof that they too can reach the very top if they put their minds to it.

The impact of Sawa’s award need not be limited to the women’s game either. The bar has now been set for Japan’s men to aim for, and although a candidate to challenge Messi for the Ballon d’Or stills seems some way off, who would have thought 20 years ago that Japanese players would earn league-winner’s medals in Italy, Germany and Scotland?

Sasaki being named Women’s Coach of the Year was also a significant achievement, and one that should help raise the profile of Japanese managers worldwide. Domestic talent has always been somewhat obscured by the number of foreign coaches in the J. League and national team over the years, but Sasaki being bracketed alongside men’s winner Pep Guardiola of Barcelona should help change that.

Sasaki was certainly helped by having a player as formidable as Sawa to call on, but for all her determination, the 33-year-old cannot go on forever. This summer’s London Games will be her fourth Olympics — to add to her participation in five World Cups — and when the curtain finally comes down, Sawa’s place among the greats of the women’s sport will be assured.

The impact of her achievements on Japan’s next generation, however, could well be her greatest legacy.