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Young veteran Utsugi key for new-look Japan 


Tokyo: After Japan’s dynamic success at the FIFA Women’s World Cup 2011, there seemed something almost predictable about the team’s march to the Finals of the 2012 Women's Olympic Football Tournament and 2015 World Cup.

The well-oiled Nadeshiko machine of those three campaigns was full of familiar names. But gone now are the likes of Aya Miyama, Shinobu Ono, Yuki Nagasato and, of course, the iconic Homare Sawa who retired after Canada 2015.

For many observers, it will be a partly new-look Japan side that steps onto the field in the AFC Women's Asian Cup 2018 in Jordan later this week seeking to shore up qualification to the 2019 Women’s World Cup in France.

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One familiar name, however, is defensive midfielder Rumi Utsugi. Tall and long-striding, Utsugi cuts a distinctive figure among Japan’s numerous small-framed ball-players.

Utsugi, a somewhat unsung heroine for Japan at Canada 2015, is suddenly a senior figure in Asano Takakura’s side. 

Of the current squad, only midfielder Mizuho Sakaguchi boasts more caps. 

Though still only 29, France 2019 would be a fourth World Cup appearance to add to an already glittering CV for Utsugi.

Takakura will be looking to win World Cup qualification for the first time as senior coach, after taking the reins from Norio Sasaki. Takakura has coached many of the current squad at youth level, and Utsugi believes this will stand the side in good stead over the coming fortnight in Jordan.

“There are many players who had been together with coach Takakura since they were youth national players, and they already have good communication,” Utsugi said. “On the other hand, I think experienced players mean a lot in the team to help young players without so much experience.

“It is stimulating to me to play with young talented players, and I feel like I’m being tested. I feel so happy today looking back how I was when I was young and how elder players had been in those days.”

Japan are in Group B alongside Korea Republic, Australia and Vietnam in Jordan, where a top-five finish at the eight-nation event will lock up FIFA Women's World Cup qualification. Another important goal will be retaining their Asian crown from four years ago.

Undoubtedly winning a ticket to the world stage is the primary ambition for Japan. And there is a personal connection to France for Utsugi that would make next year’s World Cup even more special.

Utsugi spent six seasons in the south of France at Montpellier, before linking with Seattle Reign in 2016.

Her arrival in France helped open the door for Japanese players to take the relatively unusual step of playing on the Old Continent.

Utsugi talks passionately about the idea of a return to France for the World Cup.

 

“Right after the 2015 World Cup, I remember that I and Montpellier teammates were already motivated to look forward to the 2019 World Cup and to win as many medals as possible from Montpellier,” said Utsugi. “I’m dreaming of staying true to friends and those who had supported me in Montpellier.

“I have so many good memories from my time at Montpellier, there are just too many to count. In France, there is everything that changed me [as a player and person].

"The time I spent in France was much more enriching than my time in Japan. It [thinking about my time in France] gives me a quiet and calm feeling.

“I’m playing in USA now, and proud to be selected for the Japanese national team, but it was always the thought of the sun in Montpellier which gave me positive energy.”

Sources: FIFA.com, AFP

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