Newspaper article International New York Times

Japan Moves on Minus a Vital Cog ; 36-Year-Old Midfielder Dropped from Roster, and Coach Offers Few Details

Newspaper article International New York Times

Japan Moves on Minus a Vital Cog ; 36-Year-Old Midfielder Dropped from Roster, and Coach Offers Few Details

Article excerpt

Homare Sawa, the most famous Japanese women's soccer player and one of the country's most beloved athletes, has been absent from the international team.

The players of the Japanese women's national soccer team went through a training drill here last week, scooting short passes in from the wings before sprinting toward the penalty area and blasting shots on goal. One after another after another they went, mostly working in silence except when they broke into loud cheers after a player hit a particularly pretty shot that found the side netting. The mood was upbeat -- the sunny weather on Portugal's south coast surely helped -- but also serious and focused.

"This is an important period for us," the team's captain, Aya Miyama, said afterward. "We must be strong as we defend our title."

Yet even Miyama, whose wizardry on the ball and easygoing demeanor makes her an oft-smiling star, had to admit something was different. The Japanese were here to play in the Algarve Cup, the annual springtime tournament for the sport's top teams. But Homare Sawa, the most famous Japanese women's player and one of the country's most beloved athletes, was not with them.

Sawa, whom fans remember for her game-tying, extra-time goal against the United States in the World Cup final four years ago (and subsequent gleeful trophy-raising), has been dropped from the team by Coach Norio Sasaki. And while Sasaki has not given Sawa's No.10 jersey to another player, he has also not given any indication that he plans to bring his former superstar back. It is also not clear if Sawa wants to play.

The circumstances surrounding Sawa's absence are murky: A 36- year-old midfielder, Sawa injured her knee in December, giving Sasaki some measure of cover for leaving her out. But Sawa has since returned to action with her club team in Japan, and she has not announced any sort of international retirement, leaving a measure of incompleteness to the situation.

In interviews, Sasaki has been reluctant to talk specifically about leaving out Sawa, and those around the team are quick to say that nothing is final. There is still a possibility that Sawa will be recalled when Japan opens its World Cup defense in June. Yet the Algarve Cup is the most significant warm-up event for Nadeshiko, as the team is known, and so Sawa's exclusion from it seems telling.

"This Algarve Cup is my first time to play a big game without Sawa," said Miyama, who took over the captaincy from Sawa in 2012. She added: "It is difficult. I always think of her."

Miyama is surely not the only one. The best way to explain Sawa's importance to women's soccer in Japan might be to liken her to Mia Hamm: In much the same way that Hamm drove both the success of the United States national team and the broader rise of the sport's popularity in America, so too did Sawa lead women's soccer in her country. …

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