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Absent Hazekawa at the heart of Japanese triumph

Tokyo: She may not have been present at Chonburi Stadium, but Yuna Hazekawa featured prominently in Japan’s celebrations after they beat DPR Korea in the AFC U-16 Women’s Championship Thailand 2019 final on Saturday.

The 16-year-old defender was a key part of the Little Nadeshiko’s preparations for Thailand 2019, only to be ruled out of the tournament by an injury sustained just a week before their opening match.

Despite her absence, Hazekawa became a motivational figure for Japan, something that was evident after her teammates beat DPR Korea 2-1, with the Seiwa Gakuen High School student’s number five jersey taking pride of place on the podium as the trophy was awarded.

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Japanese head coach said Hazekawa’s symbolic inclusion in the post-game festivities epitomised his side’s closeness.

“One of our team concepts is togetherness – working as a team,” said the victorious boss.

“Hazekawa was called up from the very beginning of this team and just before the final championship she suffered an injury which, unfortunately, prevented her from playing in this competition.

“Rather than feel sad, the players felt that they wanted to play for her. The celebration was a reflection of that, and the players wanted to include her in the celebration.”

Tournament MVP Hanon Nishio (pictured above) revealed that, while Japan had always targeted a fourth Asian title in Chonburi, the loss of Hazekawa just days before their opening match gave them extra incentive to produce a tournament-best performance in Saturday’s final.

“Our purpose from the very beginning was to win this tournament,” said the Urawa Reds youngster.

“(Hazekawa) was part of the team but she left, and we couldn’t play here together. Today we won the title, and I feel that we won it on behalf of her.”

Manaka Hayashi (pictured above), scorer of the match-winning goal against DPR Korea and a regular defensive partner of Hazekawa, echoed Nishio’s thoughts.

“Hazekawa is a very good player, and she has had a lot of influence on me,” she explained.

“Now that we are here and we have won the tournament I am really happy for her that we could get this title, and I appreciate her contribution.”

Thailand 2019: Moments

Injury may have made that contribution limited - at least in the physical sense - in Thailand, but Hazekawa retains the opportunity to represent Japan at next year’s FIFA Women’s World Cup India 2020 after they qualified for the global Finals by virtue of their top two finish AFC U-16 Women’s Championship Thailand 2020.

If her teammates can replicate the quality of their performance on Saturday, there is every chance Hazekawa will be seen on the podium again next November, but this time as one of the starting players.

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