Nadeshiko Japan captain Homare Sawa knows that her side's recent Women's World Cup victory has put a big target on their backs, but she says her team remains grounded as it prepares for the task of qualifying for the London Olympics.
"The World Cup and the Asian Olympic qualifiers are totally different," said Sawa, shortly after her national team had beaten a Nadeshiko League All-Star selection 3-2 on Aug. 19 in a charity match at Tokyo's National Stadium. "Now, we'll just be one of the teams trying to get to London. We won't have any special advantage (as World Cup champions), and we just look forward to the challenge."
Next up for Japan's beloved Nadeshiko squad is the final round of the Asian qualifiers for the 2012 Summer Olympics. Japan will take on Thailand, South Korea, North Korea, Australia and host China in a round-robin event from Sept. 1-11. The top two teams will advance to the London Olympics.
Host China, Australia and the two Koreas all have quality women's teams, and Sawa recognizes that.
"We will have to take every team seriously (in China), not just one or two," said the Japan midfielder, who was named MVP of the World Cup in Germany in July.
The Aug. 19 charity match, held to raise funds for victims of the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, was the nation's first chance to see their heroes in action since their dramatic penalty shootout upset victory against the powerful United States team in the World Cup final.
The charity match, played in a steady drizzle, brought just over 22,000 hardy fans out to the National Stadium, including several high-ranking political officials.
Nadeshiko Japan got off to a quick start, giving the fans what they wanted to see by banging in three goals in the first half.
Defender Yukari Kinga hammered home a nice pass from midfield sparkplug Aya Miyama in the 15th minute. Three minutes later, forward Karina Maruyama did most of the work before sliding the ball over to Nahomi Kawasumi, who made it 2-0. In the 23rd, Mizuho Sakaguchi got Japan's third, from another setup by Miyama off a free kick.
Nadeshiko Japan coach Norio Sasaki gave his substitutes a run in the second half, and the pink-clad All-Stars took advantage. Yuika Sugasawa scored shortly after the break after some nice work down the left by the speedy Nanase Kiryu to make it a 3-1 game, and Ayaka Watanabe scored from the penalty spot just before the final whistle to close out the scoring.
"We scored three times in the first half and the game started well for us," Miyama said. "We got caught on defense in the second half. We did not mesh that well and we gave up some careless goals, so we'll have to work on that. We can't do that going forward."
Sawa, who came off in the 63rd minute to a good round of applause, also pointed to the second-half letdown as something the team would have to work on before going to China.
"We scored some early goals, but we took too many risks," said Sawa, who was the top scorer at the World Cup with five goals. "That was our own fault; too many chances. Not a great performance, but we learned from our mistakes, so that's good."
Sawa also said the match was good preparation for the intense Olympic qualifying tournament, which sees the teams play five matches each over an 11-day period.
"We know we have some problems to fix ahead of the Asian qualifiers," she said. "The good news is that we know what to work on before we get to China.
"We play a lot of games over a short period in Asian qualifying. That's why it's good that we used so many players today (Aug. 19). To make the Olympics, we will need to use everyone, so it was good to get everyone in the game today.
"In the second half, we didn't play our usual game (because of the number of substitutions), but the fans got to see a close game. It was a charity match, so we should have some fun, too. If you just look at it from the perspective of trying to win, we made too many mistakes and gave up those two second-half goals. But, as I said, it was a charity match."
Nadeshiko Japan is holding a training camp in Okayama from Aug. 22-27 before heading to China. Women's soccer has been included in the Olympics since 1996, and the gold medal is considered a pinnacle of the women's game, on a par with the World Cup. Japan has qualified for the Games three times, with a best finish of fourth at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.
The United States has won three gold medals and one silver in Olympic women's soccer, while Brazil has won silver twice. Unlike in men's Olympic soccer, there are no age restrictions in women's soccer at the Olympics.
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