Despite an intense schedule, “Naho-chan", sat for an exclusive interview with Goal, discussing her career, the state of female players in Japan, and her thoughts on football
How important is football to you?
“I can’t imagine my life without football, especially now that I am still playing. But even once I retire, I don’t think I can move away from it. I am not sure of how, but I think I want football to be part of my life all the way through.”
How did it all begin?
“I have no brothers, only an elder sister, but my dad loved football and often took us to games. We were only kindergartners, yet my sister wanted to start playing, so I went along.
“My parents were sporty types. They liked to be outdoors, ran marathons, played volleyball... So, it was quite natural for me to join a football club in my second year of elementary school.
“Back then, I set up my mind on becoming a professional player, and I have never once thought about quitting.”
Do you ever think about why people get so addicted to football?
“Actually, I think about it often. In any given football game there is always going to be some thrilling element. You might hold possession for 90 percent of the time, but get scored on a counterattack and lose. In the end what counts is if the ball in some ways gets into the goal...
“In other sports it’s usually easy to see which team is stronger, but in football, you might have the exact same players, and a very different result.
“Overall, though, I must say that after playing many games, football is a really fair sport.”
But why do we get so emotional about it?
“As a professional, I sometimes wonder why people care so much about the teams I play for, why they get so ecstatic or disappointed... But then again, when I watch the men’s Japan’s National team or Barça as a supporter, I do feel the same! [laughs]
“Of course, even if I don’t play in such games, I can become very emotional about it, and I am so happy if the team I like wins, as much as I feel miserable if they lose! Well, that is the beauty of football, I guess...”
So, do you like Barca?
“I am a Barça supporter, and I definitely catch as many of their games as possible. Sometimes I just record them, and watch them while eating dinner at home.”
Do you have a favorite player?
“I really like the club and what those 11 players can do when they hit the pitch. If I have to pick a favorite player, I like Alexis Sanchez because we play in similar positions, but the player who’s really amazing is Andreas Iniesta.”
I read you played once against the Barcelona women’s team and received the compliments of their coach. Have you thought about joining a club in Europe like many of your colleagues from the national team?
“Honestly, I am not concerned with other players going abroad. If I decide to do it, it will be my decision only, not influenced by what my friends are doing.
“I believe that going abroad could be a very positive experience, but I don’t necessarily think that in a career it is the only thing that matters, and I can have good experiences in Japan as well. When at a certain point, I’ll feel I want to go, I definitely will.
“Overall, I don’t believe in extremes, I don’t believe in things that are 100 percent right or wrong.”
So, tell me what you think is important for a good football life.
“What’s important is good guidance, a good environment and support from your friends. When it comes to yourself, though, what matters are your feelings toward the game.
“Within Nadeshiko Japan and INAC Kobe, perhaps more than in men’s soccer, the feeling of friendship between players is really strong. When men become professionals, I think one of the important things for them is to earn money.
“That is of course okay, but for us women, the main reason to make it to the top is because we like football, it doesn’t matter how demanding it is.
“So, for those who make it all the way, it becomes important to have this feeling of camaraderie, and this you can see in our football as well.”
The women’s game seems much more “cleaner” than the one played by men.
“Sure. In our games in Japan you don’t see any dirty play, or simulations. That is not our style, not our culture. As a matter of fact, in Germany in 2011 when we won the World Cup, and the fair-play award, that was the first time it happened.
“Of course if I had to choose between one, I would prefer to win the World Cup, and a bit of ‘malicia’ is part of the game. Germany and Sweden and the European teams in general for example are very physical teams. When I played against them, they were very intense.
What about when playing against other Asian national teams?
“Nobody in Asia wants to lose to us. They are not as vigorous as the European teams, but they are very determined.
“The Japanese players too fight hard for the ball when needed, for example we got a red card in the World Cup final, but there is never the intention to hurt an opponent.”
American and European’s women teams often have female coaches, but men sit on both Japan and INAC Kobe’s benches. What are you feelings about this?
“Women’s football in Japan has a relatively short history, so we don’t yet have many players who have a full experience as a pro and can coach effectively. Maybe some of my generation will consider a second career as coach, and perhaps even make it to the national team.
“Anyway, I don’t necessarily think that a women’s team must be coached by a woman. And, while of course the experience as a player can help, it is not a given that a good player will automatically become a good coach in the future.”
Have you thought about coaching, in the future?
“As I’ve said, I haven’t yet decided what I will do after I retire. Thanks to football I was lucky enough to get the support of many different people in the media, and I hope to use these connections in many positive ways.
“As a kid my dream was to meet [current INAC teammate and former Nadeshiko captain Homare] Sawa, and when I did I was just so happy. Now I am in a similar position and I am conscious of how significant that is. So one of the things I think I would like to do something with kids that would help the development of football across Japan.”