INAC Kobe Leonessa forward Mana Iwabuchi will join England’s Aston Villa on a free transfer, The Japan Times has learned, making her the first Japanese player to enter the increasingly prominent Women’s Super League in over six years.
The move, which is expected to be announced early next week, will see Iwabuchi sign a contract with the Birmingham-based side, which is playing its first season in the English women’s top flight since 2004.
INAC announced Iwabuchi’s departure from the club on Tuesday without confirming her destination. The club said she would participate in the remainder of the Empress’s Cup, Japan’s equivalent of the Women’s F.A. Cup, which will hold its final on Dec. 29. Kobe will play Albirex Niigata Ladies in a Dec. 19 quarterfinal at Kanseki Stadium in Utsunomiya, Tochigi Prefecture.
“I’m incredibly grateful to everyone at the club for respecting my wishes even as preparations continue for the WE League,” Iwabuchi said in a statement.
“When I heard from a team in what I consider to be the most fascinating women’s league, I decided without hesitation that I wanted to go. I’m happy to be able to join an environment where I can grow every day.”
Iwabuchi will be the fourth Japanese woman to play in England’s first division. Yukari Kinga and Shinobu Ono both had stints with Arsenal in 2014, while Yuki Nagasato spent the 2013-14 season at Chelsea.
The 27-year-old Iwabuchi has made 72 appearances for Nadeshiko Japan, coming on as a substitute during their 2011 Women’s World Cup final victory over the United States in Germany. Iwabuchi also represented Japan during their silver-medal campaign at the 2012 London Olympics as well as their second-place run at the 2015 Women’s World Cup in Canada. More recently she was named MVP of the 2018 Women’s Asian Cup.
Iwabuchi is tied for Japan’s eighth-highest scorer with 29 goals, and with one more goal would surpass current head coach Asako Takakura.
Iwabuchi will join an Aston Villa squad that boasts a number of internationals including Portugal’s Diana Silva, Scotland’s Chloe Arthur and Denmark’s Stine Larsen. The Tokyo native will be the team’s only player from outside Europe.
After making her debut for NTV Beleza (now Tokyo Verdy Beleza) in 2007, Iwabuchi went on to win three Nadeshiko League titles, three Nadeshiko League Cups and two Empress’ Cups before joining Germany’s Hoffenheim at the end of 2012. She later moved to Bayern Munich, winning the Frauen-Bundesliga twice before returning to Japan in 2017 when she signed with INAC.
The Women’s Super League has attracted a number of stars in recent years as women’s clubs have invested more into their squads. Five members of the reigning world champion U.S. team hopped across the Atlantic this year, while several high-profile Australians including Chelsea striker Sam Kerr have also made their way to England.
Aston Villa is currently in 11th place in the 12-team WSL with a 2-0-6 record.
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