As a kindergartener, Nahomi Kawasumi used to kick the soccer ball around when she got bored of playing with sand, grass and flowers on the grounds where her big sister was practicing with a local team.
“Kawasumi was really small, and would collapse from the impact when she received balls. She got bored easily but she would always decide to play some more later on,” recalls Sadayuki Kato, 64, representative of the Rinkan Lemons, a soccer team based in Yamato, Kanagawa Prefecture, for girls in elementary school.
At the time, the Nadeshiko Japan forward and INAC Kobe Leonessa captain wasn’t old enough to join the team, which practiced on weekends and national holidays. So the coaches sometimes taught her soccer tricks to give her something to do. Thanks to that special attention, by the time Kawasumi was in second grade and old enough to officially join the Lemons, “She had the skills of a third- or fourth-grader,” says Kato.
Kawasumi’s soccer skills were also boosted by a fateful encounter in February 1994, right before Kawasumi was to start the third grade. Future Nadeshiko Japan defender Megumi Kamionobe, who plays for Albirex Niigata in the Nadeshiko League, joined the Lemons. Kawasumi practiced with her from the first day Kamionobe joined the team. Kamionobe, who was a member of the 2011 Women’s World Cup champion Japanese national team as was Kawasumi, was taken aback by Kawasumi’s play.
“I was shocked that a girl could be this good,” Kamionobe remembers.
On the national team, Kawasumi, 26, is the forward who scores goals, while Kamionobe is the midfielder who builds up the plays. But back in elementary school, it was the opposite. Kamionobe was a forward, while Kawasumi was a midfielder.
“Meg (Kamionobe) was the goal-getting Tsubasa, while I assisted like Misaki did,” Kawasumi says, referring to characters from a popular soccer manga called “Captain Tsubasa.” With this combination, Kawasumi and Kamionobe accounted for roughly 70 percent of the Lemons' goals.
The two girls were good friends off the pitch as well. On weekends, they would sleep over at each others’ houses.
“She was a special person. She was more than a best friend. She was like a part of me,” Kawasumi says of Kamionobe.
But the two were undoubtedly rivals as well. The two would compete against each other in a kick-up contest held twice a year. The lowest grade--the 30th grade--would be awarded to those who can juggle the ball three consecutive times using any part of their bodies. The highest grade requires players to continuously lift the ball for 20 minutes using just their legs. That would average out to about 2,500 kicks. It’s extremely difficult to maintain concentration for that long, and no girl had ever passed the highest grade.
“Whenever one of us passes the test and goes up a rank, the other would immediately catch up,” recalls Kamionobe. As a result of this friendly competition and skills gained from daily practice, the two became the first girls to achieve the highest grade.
On Jan. 3, Kawasumi joined the Lemons on their first practice of the year as she does every year. She brought 100 doughnuts for the team and enjoyed running after the ball with the young players.
“This is where I was able to continue soccer because I enjoyed it so much. I wouldn’t be where I’m at today without all those years of training on this team,” Kawasumi says, never forgetting to express her gratitude.
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