KAWASAKI – Homare Sawa has always been regarded as a winner throughout her long career. And she was still thought of in that way when she left the pitch for the final time.
Sawa, the 2011 FIFA Women’s World Player of the Year, scored the game-winning goal and wrapped up a career full of accolades with a 1-0 win over Albirex Niigata Ladies in the All-Japan Women’s Championship final at Todoroki Stadium on Sunday.
Kobe, one of the powerhouse clubs in Japanese women’s soccer this century, captured its first Empress’ Cup in two years and fifth in the last six years in front of a record crowd of 20,379. Albirex, who finished runnerup in the annual tournament in 2011 and 2013, was saddled with another second-place finish.
Sawa broke a scoreless deadlock in the 78th minute, when she headed a corner kick from Nahomi Kawasumi into the right side of the goal.
Niigata attacked Kobe with renewed vigor afterward, but the Kansai club managed to defend its goal until the final whistle.
Sawa, who had announced she would put an end to her playing career after the All-Japan Championship, was successfully able to say farewell to the pitch as a victor on her own terms.
“I just had a great (corner kick) from Kawasumi, so I only had to hit it,” the 37-year-old Sawa, who played the entire 90 minutes as a center-half, humbly said of her goal. “I feel great that I scored a goal in the final game of my career.”
INAC coach Takeo Matsuda said his team wasn’t able to perform as well as he would’ve liked, but that a close game came down to Sawa’s play.
“In our meeting, I told our players to look for Sawa and have linkage with her,” Matsuda said. “And we ended up winning with her goal. She’s such a great player and considering we won’t have her next year, I feel that we’ve lost a big presence.”
Kobe captain Shinobu Ono said the entire team played to help Sawa achieve the best possible ending to her career, hinting that it gave the team an extra boost during the knockout tournament.
“We shot for nothing but the championship for Sawa’s sake, that was the only thing we had on our minds,” said Ono, who also played with Sawa on the Japan national team. “We didn’t think that we’d beat Niigata easily, but it feels great that we came away with the win for Sawa.”
Sawa, who won her 13th Empress’ Cup title between her time with INAC and NTV Beleza, was thankful her teammates and the INAC staff gave her the chance to hang up her cleats in a triumphant fashion.
“Both in practice and games, they talked to me and said that they would win for me,” Sawa said. “I had so much support behind me.”
Niigata coach Futoshi Nonaka, who was with Sawa on the national team between 2007 and 2012 as a technical staff member, said he knew well enough that she comes through when things matter most and realized that again in this game.
“The bigger the stage, the better she excels. I knew it as we fought together, but I’d hoped she wouldn’t do it today,” Nonaka, who stepped down from his post after Sunday’s game, said with a bitter smile.
Sawa, who played in 205 matches and scored 83 goals for Nadeshiko Japan — most in both categories for the national team, men or women — said she was looking to score one last goal in her final match.
“I told my teammates yesterday that I’d play aggressively to score a goal,” said Sawa, who guided Nadeshiko Japan to the 2011 FIFA Women’s World Cup with her MVP-winning performance. “I was determined to play in this final game, and I was excited that I scored one.”
Sawa, who also played in a women’s league in the United States, won 11 Nadeshiko League titles with INAC and NTV Beleza.
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