By Akira Araiwa
Nadeshiko Japan’s Saki Kumagai converted the last penalty of the shoot-out in the Women’s World Cup final past summer to earn Japan the historical title in a difficult year for the country. The center back then joined the German club 1. FFC Frankfurt, and with half of the Frauenbundesliga season having passed, the 21-year-old tells Goal.com about her experiences in Germany as well as about what goes on inside a player when finding herself in the list of penalty takers in a World Cup final.
Goal.com: In the last matches for 1. FFC Frankfurt, you were fielded in midfield?
Saki Kumagai: Our manager [Sven Kahlert] asked me if I can play as ‘volante’ [defensive midfielder], and as I actually played for Urawa Reds on that position, I said ‘yes’. In that week’s [league match against VfL Wolfsburg], I found myself playing there. I didn’t have many touches, and it wasn’t good. Then, in the other [cup match against Turbine Potsdam], something new was tried, and I had some difficulties understanding the tactics, so I did not start. Before the match, I was told that someone else would play, but I didn’t take it too negatively. Then, after 20 minutes on the bench, one of our players suffered an injury and I was subbed in as an attacking midfielder.
Goal.com: How did your move to Germany happen?
SK: I was contacted in November 2010, and told that Frankfurt and Wolfsburg wanted to try me, so I was invited to a trial for January. The clubs here needed to watch me play to actually offer a contract. I was to participate in training with both teams, but only trained with Frankfurt in the end. But I liked their playing style and their training, and I got a positive response from them.
|I didn’t doubt I could make it. Training itself is more individual here, so I thought it would make me a better player if I joined [Frankfurt].
- Saki Kumagai
Goal.com: What was your impression of the team back then?
SK: Of course, I was amazed at how many internationals were there. At the same time, I didn’t doubt I could make it. Training itself is more individual here, so I thought it would make me a better player if I joined them. That’s what I hoped for, so I was happy when Frankfurt made the offer.
Goal.com: What was your image of German playing style?
SK: I thought it would be fast and strong. Of course, it is like that, but I had the preconception that soccer here was more of a kick and rush-style. But we are a passing side, so I was wrong about that.
Goal.com: What do you think is the main difference to the style of Urawa Reds?
SK: The passing speed and the passing distance. Passes are not required so much to be easy to receive. They should be fast. On the other hand, no matter how fast the ball is, or how much it bounds, if you can not receive it, it’s your miss. That’s pretty clear. That is something my manager requires from me a lot. This is the main difference.
| Obviously things would be easier if I could speak the language. As a defender, it would be very helpful. On the other hand, I am not playing soccer with words.
- Saki Kumagai
Goal.com: Coming from Japan, from which attributes do you benefit from, and what do you need to work on?
SK: Technically, I think Japanese players are extremely good. When training on possession, I am able to benefit from technique, but the issue is whether I can use that under real match conditions, when under pressure. And obviously things would be easier if I could speak the language. As a defender, it would be very helpful. On the other hand, I am not playing soccer with words, and I want to be confident about what I have, and not let communication issues affect that.
Goal.com: So communication is an issue?
SK: I can give some simple orders, like ‘Go right’ or ‘Go left’. But on the pitch, you need to speak the language. When I have things on my mind and I don’t know the words, sometimes I say it in Japanese. My team mates don’t understand it at all (laughs).
Goal.com: Did you ask Kozue Ando, who joined FCR Duisburg in 2009, about Germany?
SK: Before the move became certain, I asked her about Germany. She was a senior to me at Urawa Reds and at university, so we had trained together for quite some time. I have seen her up-close and personally. When I was in my second year at the Reds, Kozue went to Germany. And after half a year, when she was called up for the national team – gosh, she was so different! I really wondered what she did here (laughs).
|After half a year [in Germany], when she was called up for the national team – gosh, she was so different!
-Saki Kumagai on Kozue Ando
Goal.com: What was the difference to before?
SK: Her speed, her sharpness. Well, one could say ‘power’. All physical things. Of course, we worked out with machines at university, but that was not about machines. With machines you can’t train what you experience in the speed of a match here.
Goal.com: How was meeting Germany at the World Cup, knowing you would join Frankfurt after the summer?
SK: In the German national team there are about seven, eight players from Frankfurt, so I said to myself: Lose easily, and be ready for some criticism and malice. I thought that if we lost easily, I would never be taken seriously by the Germans. We eventually won, and as I think that all Germans watched that game, it was for me something like a starting step to Germany on a positive note.
Goal.com: In the final, what did you think when you were named the fourth penalty taker?
SK: ‘What? That’s a joke, isn’t it?’ is what I thought. Actually that's what I said (laughs). When the match went to the shootout, I thought that’s it, I did what I could do. I didn’t imagine I would be one of the penalty takers. We practiced penalty kicks of course, but in the end training doesn’t matter. It’s about luck.
Goal.com: Your penalty was about luck?
SK: Yes, pure luck. I had a 50% chance, and it went in.
Goal.com: How did you cope with the pressure?
SK: The order was Aya [Miyama], Naga [Yuki Nagasato], Mizuho [Sakaguchi], and then me, and I don't know if they told me to make me calm, but as a matter of fact, I became totally calm. They said: ‘There will never be a chance in our lifetime to take a penalty in a World Cup final.’ – And, that’s very true (laughs). Aya said that we should just enjoy it, and the simple person that I am, I agreed totally, and was really calm after that (laughs). I have to enjoy it, I thought. But those words, I really think they were crucial.
| I don't know if they told me to make me calm, but ... they said: ‘There will never be a chance in our lifetime to take a penalty in a World Cup final.’ - And that's very true!
-Saki Kumagai on her WWC-winning kick
Goal.com: What do you think about the effects this World Cup final had on Japanese society?
SK: I am very happy about it. We were all aware that only delivering results could make the situation better, and we talked a lot about it. And after winning the World Cup, I heard of a lot of friends that their daughter started playing soccer, which of course makes me happy.
Goal.com: Is it special to play against fellow Japanese like Ando, or Nagasato?
SK: To be honest, it doesn’t matter. Of course, there’s a part of me that really doesn’t want to be defeated by a Japanese player. But it’s not because it’s Ando, or Naga. I look forward seeing them, but on the pitch, I don’t think about them. Naturally, it’s no disadvantage to know them as players, and I know Ando well, but all the more I don’t want to lose against her. In the end, I do what I always do (laughs).
Goal.com: Could you say a few words to your fans, and all who became interested in soccer during the World Cup?
SK: I think that we have to play soccer in a way that makes people want to watch soccer even more, and be interested, and in order to contribute to that, I want to go on fighting every day.