Thursday 16 January 2020, 08:27

Kumagai: Japan want to win gold at Tokyo 2020

  • Kumagai is the reigning AFC Women’s Player of the Year

  • Famous for scoring the title-winning penalty at Germany 2011

  • Japan captain out to win maiden Olympic gold

Saki Kumagai is a player familiar with collecting trophies.

As a 20-year-old she helped Japan win their first FIFA Women's World Cup™ title at Germany 2011 before finishing as runners-up four years later at Canada 2015. After being handed the captain's armband in 2017, she skippered Nadeshiko to be crowned champions at the 2018 AFC Women's Asian Cup.

At the club level, she helped Urawa Reds to become Nadeshiko League champions in 2009 before claiming six consecutive first division titles with Olympique Lyonnais, plus winning all past four UEFA Women's Champions League titles. Most recently, she was crowned as the 2019 AFC Women's Player of the Year.

Perhaps the only title which remains elusive for her is an Olympic gold medal. She figured prominently as Japan stormed to the final at London 2012 only to be edged out by USA. And they even failed to qualify for Rio 2016, a disappointment which has further sharpened her appetite for redemption.

We recently caught up with the 29-year-old, whose sole aim for Tokyo 2020 is to capture the gold. Looking back, how do you reflect on your football career so far? Are you satisfied with what you have achieved?

Saki Kumagai: I think my football career so far has been really blessed. Of course, I couldn't have come this far had it not been for the great support from so many people. To be honest, I am more than just happy with what I have achieved. I am proud of all these results which I have won together with my great team-mates.

Winning the 2011 Women's World Cup was such an early highlight. You were an integral part of that squad and you scored the final’s winning penalty. What do you remember about that tournament and what does it mean for you?

I was only 20 years old when playing at the 2011 Women’s World Cup. All that I could remember now is that we were fighting desperately throughout. I don’t think of it as my career’s peak but winning the Women’s World Cup and being able to experience that victory is a truly wonderful and happy memory.

You also scored the decisive penalty for Lyon in the 2016 UEFA Champions League Final, following a player-of-the-match performance. Do you class yourself as penalty specialist? What made you so successful?

In fact, I am neither good at nor fond of penalty kicks! However, I had been given plenty of opportunities of taking care of spot-kicks after the 2011 Women’s World Cup final. I have gained loads of experience and with time I have become pretty capable. I now enjoy handling the task of duelling with goalkeepers. I just concentrate on the ball and I think this is probably the reason why I so often win the battle and find the back of the net.

It seemed that Japan rose from a promising Asian side to one of the best in the world overnight in 2011. How did that change come about?

The 2011 Women’s World Cup success should be firstly attributed to our respected veterans. They had worked hard and gone through much hardship to reach that level and led the team to be world champions. Above all, it was our never-say-die spirit that carried us through in that Women’s World Cup as the team made notable progress.

After 2011 you moved to Europe and you spent two years with Frankfurt, before making the switch to Olympique Lyonnais, where you still play. What experience have you gained by playing with these European giants?

I have honed my skills and been toughened up in competing against top sides. These are valuable experiences for Japanese players when looking to counter the world’s best teams and win.

Saki Kumagai of Lyon in action during the UEFA Womens Champions League Final 

Having seen the previous generation retire, now a group of young players have been fully integrated into the side. How do you view the current team under coach Asako Takakura?

In this team there are quite a few promising players who have very good technique. They have big potential.

And as captain, how do you view your role?

The idea is that we have free and smooth communication within the team. My hope is that our players can say anything they need to. My part of the job is creating the atmosphere and fueling the chemistry for such a team.

Japan's transition between generations has looked smooth, considering that you won the 2018 Asian Cup and the recent East Women's Asian Cup. What goals have you set for the 2020 Women's Olympic Football Tournament as hosts?

Our goal is to win the gold medal at the 2020 Olympic Games on home soil. Nothing more and nothing less.

What goals have you set for the new year of 2020?

The goal is to cherish every day, to enjoy the present as I continue pushing forward.

The achievements by the Nadeshiko have made a big impact on the women’s game in Japan. As a player, I want to do whatever I can to help the team and make women’s football progress even further.