Japanese attacking midfielder Homare Sawa has been the heartbeat of the Nadeshiko for two decades. The women’s football legend announced her retirement on the same day that River Plate defeated Sanfrecce Hiroshima in the FIFA Club World Cup Japan 2015 semi-finals, and she will cap off a memorable year by presenting the trophy after Sunday’s Club World Cup final.
After making her international debut at the age of 15, Sawa played 205 times for Japan and appeared in six consecutive FIFA Women’s World Cups from 1995 to 2015. Her finest moment came when she spearheaded the Nadeshiko to victory at the FIFA Women’s World Cup Germany 2011™, a triumph that inspired the Japanese public just months after the nation had been hit hard by a massive earthquake and tsunami.
Although Japan had failed to progress past the group stage during the 1999, 2003 and 2007 global tournaments, they finished second in Group B at the 2011 edition and advanced to the knock-out rounds. Sawa and Co then edged hosts Germany 1-0 in the quarter-finals and defeated Sweden 3-1 in the semi-finals.
In the Final against the heavily favoured United States, Japan conceded the opening goal but scored a late equaliser to send the game into extra time. USA took the lead again, but Sawa kept Japan’s hopes alive with a goal in the 117th minute, the Nadeshiko going on to win the penalty shoot-out and their first ever FIFA World Cup. Sawa subsequently crowned this achievement by being named player of the tournament and the first Asian player to become FIFA Women’s World Player of the Year.
In 2015 too, Sawa has had an unforgettable year on and off the field. She again guided Japan to the World Cup Final, though was unable to repeat her heroics of 2011 as United States stormed to an emphatic victory and – away from the pitch – the 37-year-old also got married. Although Sawa’s recent announcement of her retirement means football fans will no longer be able to watch her polished skills on the pitch, she has been invited to be involved in the trophy presentation after the final of the Club World Cup at International Stadium Yokohama.
As the eagerly awaited final between Barcelona and River Plate approaches, the Japanese icon spoke to FIFA.com about the Club World Cup, Lionel Messi and a year she will never forget.
FIFA.com: The FIFA Club World Cup returned to Japan this year. Have you enjoyed watching this year’s tournament?
Homare Sawa: I’ve watched the Club World Cup for many years. It’s fantastic that the world’s best clubs from every continent come to play in Japan. It’s so exciting to see the world’s top players in action close-up.
What aspects of Sanfrecce Hiroshima’s football do you admire?
Sanfrecce can switch from defence to attack, and vice versa, in an instant, and they score plenty of goals while maintaining a miserly defence. Every player knows where to be and ensures the team keeps a good shape. They are an interesting team to watch.
You wear the No10 shirt when you play and Lionel Messi, the most famous No10 in football today, is playing at this tournament. What do you think of his style of play?
I’m not really in any position to critique Messi, but I think he’s the best player in the world when it comes to skill, appetite for goals, tenacity and speed.
Are you excited that you will present the trophy after the Club World Cup final?
I’m not sure if I should be the one to perform such a wonderful task, but it’s an honour to be asked to fulfil a role that not many people can experience. I’ll do my best at the ceremony.
What were your personal highlights of 2015?
As a player, it was great to reach the final of the FIFA Women’s World Cup, while in my private life, I got married. And then just recently, I announced my retirement. So 2015 has been a hectic year, and one I will never forget.