‘Nadeshiko’ Japan feted upon return

by Andrew McKirdy

Staff Writer

Japan’s Women’s World Cup-winning soccer team made a triumphant return on Tuesday, with captain and tournament MVP Homare Sawa shrugging off suggestions she may retire in order to target gold at next year’s London Olympics.

“Nadeshiko” Japan beat the heavily favored U.S. 3-1 on penalty kicks in Sunday’s final after a 2-2 draw in regulation time, delivering the nation its first world title and offering a note of optimism just four months after the Great East Japan Earthquake.

Rumors were rife that Sawa, the tournament’s top scorer with five goals, would call it quits after having finally lifted the trophy at her fifth World Cup, but the 32-year-old insists the team’s achievement in Germany has left her hungry for more.

“Having this medal around my neck makes me want to win an Olympic one, too,” Sawa said at a news conference in Tokyo. “When you are successful, it makes you want even more.”

Hundreds of fans greeted the team’s arrival at Narita airport on Tuesday morning, and coach Norio Sasaki said the huge level of support from home had been a crucial motivating factor in his team’s triumph.

“We’re home,” said Sasaki. “When we were in Germany, we were aware that everyone was supporting us, and we wanted to help provide some inspiration and fought really hard to do so. It’s great that we were able to achieve a result like this.

“Our original plan was to win the World Cup in four years’ time, but fortunately we’ve done it before then. Next we’ve got the qualifiers for the London Olympics, and we’ve got to start again and do our best there, too. We’ve won the World Cup, but we can’t stop here.”

Sawa played down her personal success in winning the MVP and Golden Boot awards, but admitted that what the team had achieved had gone far beyond her wildest dreams.

“It was with the help of the staff and my teammates that I was able to win these awards,” she said. “When we arrived at Narita and saw so many people it really made me realize what we have achieved. It’s been a long journey to reach this point, and when I first came into the team I never thought we would end up winning the World Cup.”

Japan won its first two games against New Zealand and Mexico to qualify for the knockout phase in Germany, but a 2-0 defeat in the final group game against England forced a difficult quarterfinal assignment against the hosts. Sasaki believes losing to the English was the defining moment of his team’s campaign, and set the tone for subsequent wins against Germany, Sweden and the Americans.

Japan finished fourth at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and Sasaki believes that result was the cornerstone for his team’s latest success. “Three years ago in Beijing we were aiming to be one of the top-four teams, and we achieved that,” he said. “At a training camp after that I spoke to Sawa individually and we agreed that our next target was to go for a title. We haven’t really changed our way of working — we have just improved on the small things.”