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Interview With Homare Sawa

Aired March 9, 2012 - 05:30   ET



KYUNG LAH, CORRESPONDENT, CNN INTERNATIONAL (voiceover): Just four months after Japan's worst natural disaster, Homare Sawa and the Women's National Team took down the giants of football on the sport's biggest stage. A World Cup fairy tale that gave hope to a nation back home.

Less than a year later, Sawa is a star. But her rise to fame has been anything but sudden. At 33, she spent a lifetime in the sport. The midfielder's first national team game was at 15. Five World Cups and three Olympics later, Sawa remains as quick as ever. She silenced talk of retirement by training once again for Olympic Gold.

On this week's "Talk Asia", we catch up with FIFA Women's World Player of the Year, Homare Sawa.


LAH: Homare Sawa, thank you very much for y our time with us here on "Talk Asia". It has been an incredible year for Japan. We're looking, now, at a year back. The tsunami, the earthquake, the nuclear disaster. How did the events of a year ago shape the team as you entered the World Cup?

HOMARE SAWA, FIFA PLAYER OF THE YEAR (through translator): We weren't sure if we should even continue to play football. We even had some players from the Tepco team and we really asked ourselves if we should be playing football. However, we decided that the best thing for us to do was to play and win. Even though it's just a game, so many people supported us and told us that our win at the World Cup meant a lot to them. I do have some mixed feelings.

LAH: The coach, before you played in the World Cup - before your matches - showed the team pictures of the devastation. What were you thinking as you were looking at these pictures and about to play this sport that you said made the country so genky (ph)?

SAWA (through translator): It was hard to believe the images were of Japan. I became very sad, even though it was right before our matches. The images urged us to move forward as a team, and we strongly felt that we had to get to the finals. We were very thankful that we could play football when there were so many people affected by the earthquake.

LAH: Did you feel you were playing for the victims?

SAWA (through translator): Well, we fought for ourselves and for Japan.

LAH: Let's talk about the World Cup. First, Germany, then Sweden, then you faced the United States - a much bigger, faster team. What were you thinking as you were entering that final? Were you confident?

SAWA (through translator): For some strange reason, I just didn't feel like we could lose. I felt the team was improving at each game. I'm not sure why, perhaps a sixth sense. Up until then, we had never won against teams like Germany and the U.S., and we were never confident that we could win against them. It wasn't just me, either. My teammates were also feeling like we couldn't lose. Maybe we felt this way because Japan was giving us power.

LAH: Was it because you saw the pictures of the disaster? Did you feel that that's what it was?

SAWA (through translator): I'm not sure, but we definitely felt like we had so many people's power supporting us.

LAH: Let's talk about that brilliant goal you made in the final. Did you, when you made that kick, know that it was going to hit the back of the net?

SAWA (through translator): It was very strange. Before kicking the corner kick, the corner kick specialist, Miyama, Sakaguchi, and I were strategizing where to kick. We knew the U.S. team had many tall players, so we wanted to keep the ball close. Rather than kicking directly towards the goal, we wanted to create an angle before shooting towards the goal. I didn't know that the goal went in when I kicked the ball, because I fell backwards after kicking the ball. However, I heard the roar from the stands and realized that it went in.

LAH: So, pure luck?

SAWA (through translator): I think if I had directly kicked it towards the goal, the keeper would have gotten it. Luckily, it hit and the angle changed. The keeper couldn't anticipate that. There were only three minutes left, and it was a miracle. Yes, it was a very lucky goal.

LAH: What was it like for you to hold up that trophy?

SAWA (through translator): That whole awards ceremony, and when I held up the trophy, it felt like a dream. I couldn't believe it. It really was like a dream. Even now, when I think back on it, it seems like a dream. I wish I had enjoyed that ceremony more.



LAH: We - CNN was with Tokyo fans when you were playing that final game. When you held up that trophy, people were crying, watching it on television here, in Japan. Did you understand, at the height of this victory, what it meant to the people back home?

SAWA (through translator): In Germany, I didn't check the internet. There's no Japanese TV, so we didn't know what was going on in Japan. And it was already 3 am or 4 am in Japan. We had no idea.

LAH: Why do you think people in Japan connected so much with Nadeshiko's win in such a personal way?

SAWA (through translator): When we came back to Japan, we realized how big our win was for the people. When we were in Germany, it still hadn't sunk in that we won. But back in Japan, we heard from many people that Nadeshiko Japan's win has meant so much for the people.

LAH: Is that the power of sports?

SAWA (through translator): I think it was the power of that match.


LAH (voiceover): From the power of one match to the impact the World Cup has had on women's football in Japan. Next, we hit the pitch to take in a practice and find a legion of fans watching as well.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (through translator): She's younger than me, but I can really look up to her.




LAH (voiceover): We catch up with Homare Sawa at her club team practice in Kobe, Japan. Her recent calf injury made sports headlines here. With the 2012 Olympics approaching, we're anxious to ask her how it feels.

LAH: When we saw you running back and forth - how is the injury?

SAWA (text translation): It's completely fine.

LAH: So, right calf muscle?

SAWA: Hai.

LAH: How are you - what are you doing, now? Therapy and -

SAWA (text translation): Rehab and some care. I think I can play next week. I don't want to rush. I'll take my time to heal.

LAH (voiceover): Sawa made her international debut at the young age of 15. Years later, the Olympic hopes of Japan's national side still rests with her. And while she has grown up with the pressure of being the best, after last year's World Cup win, she now has the attention of her country and a newfound celebrity status.

"It's cold, but I really wanted to see them practice", this fan tells us. "I want to get their strength and I want to see my favorite players in real life. I've only seen them in the media and I think I can get some of their genky (ph) or power", she says.

"I watched the World Cup against the U.S. She scored the goal and I was moved. It's great that they didn't give up. I would have maybe given up. She's younger than me, but I can really look up to her".

For Sawa, growing up in the '80s, there weren't many female athletes to look up to. There weren't even girls' football teams. So, she played with the boys, pushed by her older brother.


LAH: Growing up with the sport. You started kicking around the ball when you were six-years-old with your brothers. Were they the driving force behind your interest, initially, into getting into the sport?

SAWA (through translator): I started swimming at the age of three, and then I started playing football when I was six. My older brother was just a year older, so we were always together. I was drawn more to football because I enjoyed being able to play with a team.

LAH: The sense of team, then, is what attracted you to the sport?

SAWA (through translator): Yes. It might just be my personality, but I have enjoyed team activities from a young age.

LAH: It's a unique thing that you say, because there are 25,000 girls in Japan who play sports - who play soccer - play football. And there's really no organizational set for girls to play the sport. You, yourself, had to play with boys on the team. So, trying to play in a team is very difficult in Japan if you're a girl who wants to play football.

SAWA (through translator): Yes. When I was little, there were no teams for girls, so I was the only girl on a boys' team. But now it's improving and there are girls' teams that one can play on. But, looking back now, my technique probably improved because I played with boys. And, perhaps, I became mentally stronger, too, because I didn't want to lose to boys.

LAH: So, being the only girl on the team actually helped you, instead of making you feel excluded?

SAWA (through translator): No one bullied me. When we went on training trips, even though we were in elementary school, girls and boys had separate rooms. I wanted to be with the team, so I didn't like being separated just because I was a girl. Other than that, I didn't think much of it.

LAH: Against this backdrop, how did you develop into a world-class player?

SAWA (through translator): After elementary school, there weren't many teams where girls could join. I managed to find a women's team to play in. However, many team members were 14 or 10 years older than me. There wasn't much I could do, but I wanted to be able to play like them so badly. I was in tears from frustration every day and I would practice until dark.

LAH: You made your international debut at the age of 15. At age 33 now and 82 international goals later, did you think that you would still be playing the sport now?

SAWA (through translator): In my life plan, I wanted to get married around the age of 28 and have kids. But my life is now completely different from that. Frankly, I didn't think I'd be playing until this age, but I had a goal of becoming number one in the world as a football player. I couldn't stop until I achieved it.

LAH: Let's talk about Zurich. When you were named FIFA's Player of the Year. Do you feel like the world's number one player?

SAWA (through translator): I didn't think I'd receive the award. There was Marta who had received the award for five straight years. Also, Wambach is a very good player. To be considered in the same group as those great players was already an honor. When they called my name at the awards ceremony, I couldn't react and my mind went blank. I didn't prepare a speech, and I don't even remember what I said. I just remember thinking I had to thank everyone.

LAH: One person who thanked you was the Prime Minister. Prime Minister Noda said, after your award, to the press, "It is encouraging news as the new year has just begun. I am proud of her". Do you feel like a national symbol?

SAWA (through translator): No, no, no. Not at all. I've been able to play football, which I love, with great teammates. Even though I was the receiver of the award, I believe it was for all my teammates and I was simply the representative to receive it. This award is so big. It's so difficult to even receive the award once, and I'm very happy about it.

LAH: You are not the biggest or the tallest person on the field. Whenever you see your opponents - whenever you hit that pitch - what is the key to your success?

SAWA (through translator): I don't think a team of 11 players that are 180 centimeters tall is necessarily the key to winning. It takes all types of players to make a team. I've never compared myself with others. Instead, I try to bring out the best of my qualities.

LAH: What are those qualities? What is it that makes you able to defeat someone who's 180 centimeters tall?

SAWA (through translator): When I played in the U.S., I came to understand that my technique is different because I am a Japanese player. The organizational powers are different. I'm proud to be a Japanese player.

LAH: What do you mean?

SAWA (through translator): When I played in the U.S., I noticed that Japanese players are more strategic, because they must make up for their lack of athleticism. In the U.S., a player that's a good kicker, kicks the ball, then a player that can run fast runs after the ball, and tall players shoot to score. That's their idea. There aren't opportunities for the midfielders to pass the ball, which is the fun part of the game. Japanese players, because they're not as athletic, play a much more detailed game.

LAH: The time that you played in the U.S. - did that, in a way, mentally prepare you for that World Cup final?

SAWA (through translator): Japan had lost to the U.S. twice when I came back to Japan after the 2008 Olympics. I wanted to go back to the U.S. to play with good teams, which is why I spent the 2009 and 2010 seasons in the U.S. But, in order to win the 2011 World Cup, I wanted to play in Japan with Japanese players. That's why I came back to Japan for the 2011 season.


LAH (voiceover): 2011 was a banner year for Sawa. But she says she isn't done yet. Next, the National Team captain looks ahead to the London Olympics and looks forward to Japan's future.




SHINOBU OHNO, JAPAN NATIONAL SOCCER PLAYER (through translator): Truly, she doesn't need to use words. She shows it with her plays. She is an exceptional player.

LAH: What is it like for you to coach Homare Sawa?

HOSHIKAWA KEI, JAPANESE CLUB TEAM COACH (through translator): She is the best player in the world. It's like having Messi on the team in the Men's League.

LAH: She's known as a player who can inspire others. Do you see that?

KEI (through translator): She's not talkative, but she leads the team with her soccer skills.

LAH: There's been references to her being almost a national treasure, especially if you consider what kind of year Japan has had. Do you view her that way?

KEI (through translator): Yes. That's true. Japan was under tough conditions when she was able to lead the team to victory. So, in that way, yes. She did help Japan and give power to the people.


LAH: Certainly, now everyone knows who you are. Do you feel the heat as we are approaching the Olympics?

SAWA (through translator): People ask me that a lot. We haven't won a medal at the Olympics, but because we won the World Cup, many teams will analyze us and take note of us. I am proud about winning the World Cup, but I don't feel much pressure.

LAH: Your team, after that extraordinary win at the World Cup, flew back in coach class. Did the financial backing of the team change after the World Cup?

SAWA (through translator): Yes. Luckily, the top 10 players were able to come back on business class. When we came back, we had so many sponsors that financially backed us. Some players were able to get professional contracts. It's still not as well funded as the men's organization.

LAH: There is still a great disparity between men's and women's leagues in Japan. Financially, a lot of the women's teams are still trying to stay solvent. You know, before the World Cup, when some of your teammates had to work full-time jobs and then you had to practice after 7 pm. Do you believe that gap will close and how long will it take before it closes?

SAWA (through translator): Honestly, I think it depends on the Olympics. If we can do well at the Olympics, maybe some players may switch from having to work full-time to part-time. I'm not sure how long, really, but it will heavily depend on how well we do at the Olympics.

LAH: A U.S. player, in a month, makes what a Japanese player makes in a year. So, are these financial challenges as great a challenge as even what you face on the field?

SAWA (through translator): I'm not sure. I don't know much about the business side of things.

LAH: Let's talk a little bit about the price of celebrity status. Because you're certainly now known to everybody in Japan. You reportedly had to change your apartment, and you can't do things like just get on your bicycle and go wherever you like. Do you believe that that is the price of celebrity?

SAWA (through translator): Sure. There are things I can't really do anymore. And sometimes it's not all positive. I didn't do anything wrong, so I have nothing to hide from. Yes, the environment has changed, but there have been improvements with the Women's Football League. So there are many good things that came out of it as well.

LAH: Has it made it more difficult to train?

SAWA (through translator): I'm thankful that fans and supporters come watch our practice. Sometimes it's not easy, honestly. If people keep the lines of etiquette, though, there are no problems.

LAH: Are you considering - because there was talk that you may consider backing away from the role of team captain to try to lessen some of the pressure. Is that something that you're considering at all?

SAWA (through translator): I'm not captain this year. I've been captain for many games already and it's not good for the younger players to depend on us. Going forward, it's better for the younger players to take on the responsibility of being captain. For me, it doesn't matter if I'm captain or not. I'm going to continue to lead the team anyway.

LAH: You once joked that you are thinking about retirement, which your coach immediately smacked down. Said, "She's not going to retire".


LAH: Are you thinking, after the Olympics, about what happens after?

SAWA (through translator): No. I never told my coach that I was going to retire. Rather than thinking ahead, I think one year at a time. I can't really think about what happens after the Olympics. I really believe that this year is very important and I must put all my efforts into this year. In terms of retirement, I can't really think about that right now. I'll think about it when the time comes.

LAH: What does your family think of your success?

SAWA (through translator): They aren't too talkative. My brother was very happy about the World Cup and the award. I spent a lot of time with my brother and always felt like I didn't want to lose to him. Of course, I'm very happy that he's proud of me. My family, as well, are all extremely happy.

LAH: What advice do you have for young girls who want to be you some day?

SAWA (through translator): It's been a long time since I set the goal of winning the World Cup, and I want to communicate the importance of having a goal. It's easy for people to want to see results quickly, but it takes time. I encourage them to keep at it. If it's something you like, keep trying.

LAH: I spent the better part of this last year going up and down the coast, talking to a lot of people who were affected by the disasters - whether it be the nuclear disaster or the tsunami. And, after your win, you've actually come up in conversation a few times with these people about how important Nadeshiko is. A year after this disaster, what is it that you want to share with some of the victims of the tsunami?

SAWA (through translator): It's not easy to express, and it's not right to say it lightly, so it's difficult. If there's anything we can do for the victims, we'd really like to do something.

LAH: Japan is facing a lot of challenges after the disaster. Are you hopeful for the country?

SAWA (through translator): Yes. Of course, I think so. 17 or 18 years ago, there was that big earthquake in Kobe. So many people were saddened by that. But Kobe recovered. Now Tohuku is rebuilding, and I don't know how long it will take. But I believe that they will recover.

In other countries, when disaster strikes, the media will often talk about citizens stealing from stores or from each other when there is a lack of food. However, in Japan, people lined up to buy food and I think their attitude was amazing. I feel like people were helping each other and moving forward together.

LAH: To the people who have helped Japan around the world throughout this year - is there anything you'd like to say to your fans and to all the people who've watched you and watched this country?

SAWA (through translator): After each game of the World Cup, we wrote our thanks on our banners, thanking people all over the world on behalf of Japan. We're so grateful that we've had so much support from the world.