The Swift Kicker Behind Japan’s Women’s Soccer Rise

Homare Sawa lifted Japan with a World Cup win — and put women's football on the map

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Photo-Illustration by Adam Pretty for TIME

Sawa was the football world’s female player of the year for 2011

Every hero is a rebel first, even in a country that likes to play by the rules. It was 1985, and Homare Sawa had gone to watch her older brother’s football practice when the coach invited her to join the game. The athletic 6-year-old, who had been swimming since she was 3, sauntered onto the pitch for the first time. “I thought it looked really fun, so I kicked the ball,” Sawa, who is now 33, recalls. It went straight through the goalposts. “It was a toe kick,” she explains.

Thirty years ago, girls didn’t really play football in Japan, let alone win the world’s most prestigious sports competitions. Sawa has kicked both those notions out the door. The 5-ft. 4-in. (164 cm) midfielder’s unflagging work ethic and tactical prowess have made her a giant in a game of much bigger players — and perhaps the most famous athlete in Japan. Last July, she became a national hero when, a few months after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, she made a near-post dash in the waning minutes of the Women’s World Cup final to redirect a corner kick past American keeper Hope Solo to level the score at two goals each. Japan then beat the stunned Americans 3-1 in penalty kicks to become world champions for the first time. 

It was an otherworldly victory for Japan. With its coasts still blanketed in debris and with faith in the government eroding over the mishandling of the nuclear crisis, this was the first good news anyone there had had in months. In the last tense moments of the game in Frankfurt — at 6:22 a.m. in Japan — 7,196 tweets were -going out every second, breaking Twitter’s previous record. When defender Saki Kumagai’s decisive penalty kick sailed into the net, strangers in packed Tokyo bars abandoned social formalities, hugging, high-fiving and filling the early-morning streets of the capital with wild cheers. The players became instant celebrities, and the following month, then Prime Minister Naoto Kan awarded them Japan’s National Honor Award for giving their fellow citizens “the courage to face hardships and moving them with the team’s eloquent style of play.” 

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The unlikely rise of Nadeshiko, as the women’s national team is called, from scrappy underdogs to world champions has pushed women’s football into the spotlight for the first time in Japan. Now Sawa and her teammates are days away from an even bigger challenge: showing the world they can do it again by capturing Olympic gold in London.

In Japan, as in most countries, female footballers have always had far less funding, fewer sponsors and a smaller fan base than their male counterparts. There were only about 39,000 registered female players in the country in 2011, compared with some 890,000 men, according to the Japan Football Association. Sawa grew up playing on boys’ teams and regularly had to sit out tournaments because girls didn’t qualify to play. “Watching the games from the bench was frustrating,” she says. Even after she made her international debut at 15, Sawa says it was still mostly friends and family who went to watch the games. 

Today she’s one of the few female players who doesn’t need a day job. On her previous team, Sawa says, “everybody went to work, and practices were after office hours. The environment for playing wasn’t good. It was horrible.”

All of that changed when Nadeshiko beat the Americans, a team of physically bigger, professional players. “No one expected much from our little team. But we prevailed game after game, and then we won,” says Norio Sasaki, Nadeshiko’s coach. “Our victory put women’s football in Japan on the map.” Now fans line up to watch Sawa’s club team, INAC Kobe Leonessa, and sponsorships and commercial contracts have been flowing in. A few national-team players still have day jobs — and the prizes for winning are still smaller than the men’s — but the change is palpable. “There’s still a big gap,” says Sasaki, “but it’s getting better.”

That game also changed everything for Sawa. The feeling that had always haunted her — that life would have been easier as a boy — evaporated with the victory. In January, Sawa was awarded FIFA’s Ballon d’Or, beating out Brazil’s Marta and U.S. star Abby Wambach for the top prize. It came after nearly 20 years of playing on the national team and competing in five World Cups. Sawa let only the briefest of smiles slip when the announcer called her name before walking purposefully to the stage in a powder blue kimono. That humility and reserve — coupled with her penchant for smashing barriers — has inspired fans at home. Many even know by heart a line from a pregame pep talk she gave to her teammates: “If you’re having a tough time, watch my back. I will be there, playing with everything I’ve got to lead you.”

London could be one of those tough times, made tougher by Japan’s higher expectations. The Americans have already demonstrated their thirst for revenge with a 4-1 win over Japan in a warm-up match. Brazil and Sweden are always medal threats. 

It will be the third consecutive Olympics for Nadeshiko. And Sawa, despite missing several months of play this year because of a case of vertigo, recovered and was training hard by early summer. “We’re not good enough to win it now at all,” Sawa said in a June interview. “Each of us needs to improve, or the team won’t improve.” Sasaki — only half kidding — says the team simply doesn’t have a choice: “Sixty-five percent of the people in Japan think we’re going to win. There’s no way we can afford to disappoint them.” 

What happens after July? Both Sawa and her coach dismiss rumors that she’ll retire after London, though she freely admits that she’s about five years behind on her plan to be married and have kids at 28. “I’m way off schedule!” she says, laughing. But she’s hardly freaking out. “Someday I’ll retire. And when I do, I hope the younger generation of girls will be able to play football on equal terms with the men.” They won’t all be heroes or even rebels. They won’t have to be. Thanks to Sawa, they can just kick the ball. 

— With reporting by Lucy Birmingham and Chie Kobayashi / Kobe