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Kuala Lumpur: If any of Asia’s women footballers can lay claim to the title of ‘Queen’, it is surely a straight shootout between two members of the game’s royalty: China’s Sun Wen and Japan’s Homare Sawa.

Sun’s achievements will go down in the history of the sport but at the very highest level, the 1999 FIFA Women’s World Cup Final she and her team fell short.

By contrast, at the 2011 final, Sawa rose to the occasion, creating an iconic moment – and for this, and more, she earns her place as the-AFC.com’s first female ‘Asian Icon’.

Age: 38

Clubs: NTV Beleza, Denver Diamonds, Atlanta Beat, Washington Freedom, INAC Kobe Leonessa

International appearances (Goals): 204 (83)


Child Prodigy

 

At 12 years old, people are generally focused on getting to grips with the various challenges adolescence brings.

By this age, Sawa – who started playing football with her brothers six years prior – was already getting to grips with opposing midfielders in the L.League, the Japanese women’s top flight.

The Tokyo-native spent in total 13 years with her first club, the much-celebrated NTV Beleza, with stints at Denver Diamonds, Atlanta Beat and Washington Freedom in between her three spells at her hometown team.


More Milestones


Sawa at 1997 AFC Women’s Asian Cup

Domestic debut at 12, first international cap at 15, FIFA Women’s World Cup bow at 16, Sawa continued ticking off career goals at a frenetic pace when she appeared at the 1995 finals in Sweden.

The second edition of the FIFA Women’s World Cup saw Japan and Sawa reach the quarter-final stage after finishing third in Group A, but a meeting with the United States in the Knockout Stage proved a step too far as the Nadeshiko were beaten 4-0.

It would not be the last time Sawa encountered the side from North America at the World Cup, nor would it be the most memorable.


Making History

Sawa would remain a fixture in the national side, selected for the next three World Cups (1999, 2003 and 2007) and two Summer Olympics (1996 and 2008). At the latter, the Nadeshiko went close to picking up their first silverware, but lost 2-0 to Germany in the bronze medal match.

Three years later, though, at the 2011 FIFA Women’s World Cup, Japan and Sawa’s time had arrived.

Qualifying for the quarter-finals in second place from Group B, the East Asians faced hosts Germany in the last eight and captain Sawa made her first crucial contribution in the knockout rounds after assisting Karina Maruyama’s extra-time winner.

In the semi-final against Sweden, Sawa then headed Japan into the lead on the hour before Nahomi Kawasumi netted her second of the match to take Norio Sasaki’s side into the final and a meeting with the USA.

 

A rollercoaster climax to the competition saw Sawa take centre stage, netting a spectacular extra-time equaliser with a backheel flick from a corner to tie the scores at 2-2 and ensure a penalty shootout.

Japan held their nerves and converted three of their four spot-kicks to emerge winners and lift the trophy – Asia’s first World Cup winners.

Sawa was awarded both the Golden Boot as tournament top scorer with five goals and the Golden Ball as tournament MVP.


Olympic Silverware

A year later, the 2011 FIFA Women’s World Cup finalists would meet again at the climax of a competition, this time at the 2012 Summer Olympic Games.

Having defeated Brazil and France en route to the final, the Nadeshiko had a chance to become the first Asian side of either gender to win a gold medal in football at the Olympics.

However, the miracle of 2011 was not to be repeated. Carli Lloyd’s brace proved a deficit too large to overcome despite Yuki Ogimi netting a reply with half an hour remaining.

Nevertheless, the silver medals Sawa and her teammates were awarded still represented just the second time an Asian side had reached that stage, equaling China’s performance at the 1996 Olympic Games.

The veteran would subsequently announce her immediate retirement from international football.


Continental Glory

Having participated in Asian women’s football competitions since 1977, it remains hard to believe that it took until the 2014 AFC Women’s Asian Cup for Japan to finally be crowned the continent’s best.

By this point, Sawa’s medal haul included 11 domestic and international titles, not including her numerous individual awards. Yet despite appearing in AFC Women’s Asian Cup competitions since her first as an 17-year-old in 1997, continental gold still alluded her.

Completing the set, and an opportunity at one final Women’s World Cup proved a temptation too hard to resist and Sawa announced her return to international competition ahead of the 2014 AFC Women’s Asian Cup.

At the tournament in Vietnam, Japan topped Group A ahead of defending champions Australia before Sawa’s opener ultimately helped the side to defeat China in extra-time in the semi-final.

That ensured a mouth-watering re-match with the Matildas in the showpiece event where Azusa Iwashimizu’s 28th minute header finally, victoriously, ended Japan and Sawa’s quest.

It would prove to be Sawa’s final time lifting a major trophy.


World Cup Swansong

A few months before her 37th birthday, in the summer of 2015, Sawa stepped out in her final FIFA Women’s World Cup. Along with Brazil’s Formiga, who was also taking part in the finals in Canada, Sawa became the first footballer to appear at a record sixth World Cup.  

Japan topped Group C with a 100% record and then defeated the Netherlands, Australia and England on their way to a second appearance in the World Cup Final, against old rivals the USA.

Over 53,000 fans saw USA captain Carli Lloyd provide Japan a mountain to climb after she netted a hat-trick within the opening 16 minutes with Lauren Holiday also getting on the scoresheet.

Yuki Ogimi did pull one back before the half hour to make it 4-1 but, despite Sawa joining the field from the substitutes bench on 33 minutes, Japan’s stint as World Cup holders was over with the USA eventually running out 5-2 winners.


The Future

Sawa would draw down the curtain on her near 25-year career for good in December 2015, with the headline achievement a record 205 caps and 83 goals for her country.

“I definitely don’t want to become a coach; it just doesn’t interest me,” she told FIFA.com.

“Apart from that I still don’t know exactly what awaits me after I hang up my boots, but I definitely want to remain in football in some capacity.

“I’d love to be involved with the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo.”

The Asian Icon, who was inducted into the AFC Hall of Fame in 2014, gave birth to her first child, a daughter, in January of this year.

Could she follow in her mother’s footsteps? Only time will tell.

Photos: FIfA, Getty Images & Lagardère Sports