Even when they play in different uniforms, Aya Miyama cannot consider her idol and mentor, Homare Sawa, six years her senior, as the enemy.
The two leading ladies on the Japanese women’s soccer team have a long history of admiring and motivating each other. And those feelings were still present when they competed against each other on May 26 for the first time since December 2011.
At a Nadeshiko League match in Kumamoto city on May 26, Miyama, 27, received a pass from her teammates on Okayama Yunogo Belle and began running to launch an offensive. But Sawa intercepted. Playing for INAC Kobe Leonessa, Sawa used a deep, edgy tackle to gain control over the ball.
After the game ended in a 0-0 tie, the two rivals expressed their respect and admiration for each other.
“Miyama was a major obstacle for us. I’m glad we were able to keep her at bay,” Sawa said, followed by Miyama’s comment: “Sawa was always in the most dangerous zones. I learn so much from her play.”
The two first met 16 years ago in 1996. Then 17-year-old Sawa, who had been on the national team since the age of 15, visited a soccer class held at an elementary school that 11-year-old Miyama was attending. Miyama was the only girl out of the 30 schoolchildren who attended that soccer lesson.
“Miyama was playful. She was leading the group using language you wouldn’t imagine based on her image today,” Sawa says, looking back on that day.
Sawa’s presence had a huge impact on Miyama, who had been to J.League games and practices to watch and learn from male professionals.
“I was amazed at how strong a woman could kick and how precise Sawa’s lifting was,” Miyama says of her first impression of Sawa. Since Sawa’s visit, Miyama began attending women’s soccer matches as well.
In her second year of junior high school, Miyama joined NTV Menina--a team that had trained Sawa. Several months later, Miyama was selected to play for the top team Beleza. By then, Sawa had already transferred to a U.S. team, but Sawa always showed up for practices when she came back to Japan.
“Hey kids, I’m going to kick the ball that way. Heads up!” Sawa would call out as she invited other kids to join her.
Miyama was mesmerized by Sawa’s skills and friendliness in showing younger players the techniques she learned in the United States.
“I paid attention to every word and every move Sawa made. To make sure I didn’t miss anything, I stayed by her side at all times,” Miyama says of those days.
The two first became teammates in 2003 on the Nadeshiko Japan national team ahead of the Women’s World Cup held in the United States. They stood on the same pitch for the first time during a match against Guam, in which Miyama made her debut as a starting member of Nadeshiko Japan.
At first, Miyama lacked confidence. “When I got hold of the ball, I was always looking for Sawa,” Miyama says. Sometimes, Sawa had to explicitly tell Miyama to make her own strategic moves to get Miyama to take action.
Asked why she was so dependent on Sawa, Miyama says with a shy grin, “I knew that Sawa never loses control of the ball and that she would create a positive flow once she got hold of the ball.”
Despite her lack of confidence, Miyama’s techniques were top class even on the national team. And Miyama soon overcame her habit of looking for Sawa on the pitch. But Miyama failed to secure a spot as a major contributing player. At the time, the women’s national team ran several offensive patterns and picked players according to each pattern. Miyama’s style of changing her destinations for her passes in a flash at the last minute and dribbling were considered inappropriate for the team’s style of implementing pre-determined moves.
As a result, Miyama saw game time only in one match from the 89th minute during the 2003 World Cup. Ahead of the 2004 Athens Olympics, she was even taken off the roster of alternate players.
Sawa again supported Miyama through those tough times. “You can do it. You’ll definitely be on the roster the next time,” she told Miyama.
Miyama, meanwhile, decided not to change her style of play because she thought that the very qualities that team officials frowned upon made her unique. She refused to be discouraged at being taken off the roster, and contributed to the team in other ways such as practicing with her teammates by pretending to be members of opposing teams or carrying around equipment for practices.
“The most important thing is always how I can contribute to the team. I felt content being in supportive roles,” Miyama says of those days.
Miyama’s playing style was accepted when current Nadeshiko Japan head coach Norio Sasaki was appointed to his post at the end of 2007. Sasaki encouraged autonomy and urged players to think for themselves.
“We began to feel that if we don’t do it, who will?” Miyama says.
The East Asian Football Championship held in February 2008 was the first official game played under Sasaki’s watch. The first opponent was North Korea, a fierce rival that defeated Japan with penalty kicks at the final matches of the 2006 Asian Games in Doha, Qatar. When Japan was losing to North Korea 1-2 in the last minutes of the second half in 2008, Miyama’s direct free kick helped Japan tie. After scoring the goal, Miyama yelled, “Sawa, we can win this if we make one more goal!”
This comment came as a wake-up call to Sawa. “I thought tying the game would be enough. But Miyama’s comment made me fight until the very end,” Sawa says.
During injury time, Sawa scored the winning goal. This win gave Nadeshiko Japan momentum and confidence, marking the team's first-ever championship trophy.
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