Homare Sawa has long been the face of Japanese women’s soccer, single-handedly carrying the sport years before its national team received the affectionate moniker of “Nadeshiko.”
Since making her full international debut at the age of 15, Sawa has appeared in five World Cups and four Olympics, and is three games shy of 200 caps with 82 goals to her credit.
She was named the 2011 Women’s World Player of the Year by FIFA for leading Japan to its first World Cup title in Germany, where she was also the tournament’s top scorer.
Sawa went on to prove both she and Japan were no fluke by capturing a silver medal at the 2012 Olympics in London. In December, she was among the inaugural class of the Asian Football Confederation’s hall of fame — the only active player among the 10 inductees.
But with Sawa turning 37 in September and not having been called up by coach Norio Sasaki since the Asian Cup in May, some have begun to question her place on next summer’s World Cup squad and even speculate about her international retirement before that.
Yet the thought of giving up on the World Cup or retirement hasn’t crossed Sawa’s mind — at all.
“If and when I start feeling satisfied about my career, then I think it’s time for me to hang up my boots,” Sawa said in an interview with Kyodo News at the AFC Annual Awards in Manila, where she joined legendary former Bundesliga standout Yasuhiko Okudera as the first two Japanese players to enter the hall.
“As long as I’m playing, I want to keep setting records or whatever, and continue to strive to be the kind of player who’ll be remembered by the fans.
“I was a little surprised to be the only one in the hall who’s still playing, but I’m really thrilled by the fact that people appreciate what I’ve done in my career.
“I’ve been through a lot to get to where I am now, and I just want to thank everyone who’s touched my career.”
Sasaki’s holders will begin the World Cup year in March in Portugal at the Algarve Cup, where they are likely to face several of their potential opponents at the June 6-July 5 tournament in Canada, including the United States, the reigning Olympic champion.
Japan beat the U.S. on penalties in the 2011 World Cup final, providing the quake-torn nation a much-needed emotional lift and making instant celebrities out of the 23 women during their historic run.
Japan was not among the favorites going into Germany, but next year will be an entirely different proposition. As champions, they will have a bull’s eye on their backs and be considered one of the teams to beat alongside the U.S. and top-ranked Germany.
“They’re always the team to beat,” the AFC Women’s Player of the Year, Katrina Lee Gorry of Australia, said of Sasaki’s side.
“Their technical skill is above the other teams and I think that’s what shines when they play anyone else. So they’ll definitely be the team to beat, and I’m excited about that.
“We have the strength and America are fit and physical, but technically, Japan are up there. They got almost the whole package, I don’t even know where to fault them.”
From the eyes of a continental rival, Gorry admitted Sawa’s exclusion from the fold this year has been intriguing.
“I am surprised Sawa hasn’t been in,” she said. “I think Sawa’s an amazing player and if Japan don’t want her, Australia will take her any day. I think everyone knows how amazing she is, and she should definitely be in the World Cup.”
While there’s every chance Sawa could crack the final squad at the last minute based on her overwhelming experience, if she is not selected for the Algarve Cup, Sasaki may have just given up on her.
But the manager appears to want a rejuvenated Sawa. Perhaps as a signal, Sasaki didn’t hand the No. 10 shirt — Sawa’s long-held number — to anyone else last October for two away friendlies against Canada.
Regardless of her place at the World Cup, Sawa fully understands what the event means toward keeping the women’s game going in Japan. If Sasaki’s side underperforms in Canada, it could eat into the huge gains it has made since reaching the world summit in Germany.
“Everyone’s goal is to win the World Cup again, but I still think there’s a considerable gap between us and the world’s best players,” Sawa said.
“So it’ll be difficult for sure. But to keep women’s football going, Nadeshiko have to produce good results and I think we can achieve that if everyone on the team sticks together and looks after one another.”