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Pathway to stardom

Sunday, September 15, 2019
Ji So-yun, Sam Kerr, Mana Iwabuchi, Wang Shuang

Chonburi: Today they stand on top of the footballing world, but they were once teenagers taking their first steps on the international stage.

While World Cups, club titles and major individual awards would follow, many of Asia’s women’s football icons began their careers on the same stage which greets a new generation of players in Chonburi in the AFC U-16 Women's Championship Thailand 2019.

As the Continent waits to see which promising youngsters will emerge in Thailand, looks back at some of the AFC U-16 Women’s Championship's graduates.

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Mana Iwabuchi – Japan, 2007

A prodigious talent from an early age, Iwabuchi was just 14 when she represented Japan at the 2007 AFC U-16 Women’s Championship in Malaysia, but even then, she was a footballer with intelligence beyond her years.

The teenage Iwabuchi started in all four of Japan’s matches, scoring in a 3-1 semi-final victory against China PR, before suffering a 3-0 defeat against DPR Korea in the final.

From there, Iwabuchi’s rise was sharp. She was the tournament MVP at the FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup in New Zealand the following year, and by 2011 she was a senior World Cup winner in Germany at 18 years of age.

She has gone on to become one of Asia’s best, and most watchable, players, appearing for clubs like FC Bayern Munich and adding the AFC Women’s Asian Cup MVP title to her long list of awards when Japan retained their title in Jordan in 2018.

Ji So-yun – Korea Republic, 2007

Ji So-yun was already a senior international footballer when she arrived in Malaysia for the 2007 edition of the tournament, and she lived up to her billing by captaining Korea Republic to a third-place finish, which took them to the 2008 FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup.

After scoring in Korea Republic’s opening 3-1 loss to China PR, Ji played her part in her side’s revenge, scoring from the spot in the third-place play-off penalty shootout which confirmed Korea Republic’s place at New Zealand 2008.

Ji went on to emerge top scorer at the AFC U-19 Women’s Championship two years later, before embarking on a superb career which has included the 2013 AFC Women’s Player of the Year Award, and appearances at two FIFA Women’s World Cups.

Her exploits in English football – where she has won two league titles with Chelsea – have opened the door for other Korean players, with national teammates Cho So-hyun and Lee Geum-min signing for FA Women’s Super League clubs in her footsteps.

Sam Kerr – Australia, 2009

Long before Sam Kerr had become a household name in Australia and beyond, she helped the Junior Matildas achieve their best ever finish in the AFC U-16 Women’s Championship in Bangkok.

In a team packed with future international stars like Caitlin Foord, Alanna Kennedy, Emily van Egmond and Steph Catley, Kerr – who had only been playing football for four years - played an important role without finding the back of the net as Australia finished fourth.

Six months later, Kerr, still 16, scored in the AFC Women’s Asian Cup Final as Australia won their first and only Asian title against DPR Korea in Chengdu; a match she still rates as her favourite football memory.

Since then, Kerr has become an icon of the women’s game, becoming one of the world’s elite players, winning the AFC Women’s Player of the Year Award in 2017 and becoming the first Australian, man or woman, to score a hat-trick in a senior World Cup.

Wang Shuang – China PR, 2009

Only 14 years of age when representing China PR at the same AFC U-16 Women’s Championship where Kerr burst onto the scene was China PR’s Wang Shuang, who could scarcely have predicted the heights her career would scale in the decade to follow.

An ever-present in her side’s qualifying campaign for the 2009 tournament, Wang would only start once as China PR suffered their worst ever finish at the Finals with a group stage exit in Bangkok.

Wang would truly announce herself four years later. Five goals at the 2013 AFC U-19 Women’s Championship made her one of the hottest properties in the Asian women’s game, with the first of her 100 international caps coming in the same year.

She has since become one of Asia’s best, and most discussed, players. Winning the AFC Women’s Player of the Year Award in 2018 and making a historic move to French giants Paris-Saint Germain, where she became the first Chinese player to score in the UEFA Women’s Champions League.

Photos: AFP, FIFA via Getty Images, AFC

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