Monday 23 November 2020, 15:36

Teen prodigy Kobayashi comes of age in time for home Olympics 

  • Rikako Kobayashi starred as Japan won first FIFA U-17 Women's World Cup in 2014

  • Scored 13 times as NTV Beleza finished third in 2020 Nadeshiko League

  • Striker harbours high hopes with host nation for next year’s Olympic Games

When the curtain came down on the 2020 Japanese Nadeshiko League on Saturday, it was Nippon TV Beleza's young striker Rikako Kobayashi who had emerged as one of the season's biggest revelations.

The 23-year-old forward struck 13 times as her side finished third on the standings. Notably, she completed a brace as Beleza romped past Iga FC 6-1 before scoring a treble in a 5-1 drubbing of Ehime. Kobayashi finished as the league's third top-scorer, just four goals shy of Japan and Urawa Red Diamonds goal-machine Yuika Sugasawa.

Making the achievement all the more impressive was her recent role change. Usually deployed as a second striker, she was converted into the No9 role filling the large void vacated by Mina Tanaka, the league's four-time top-scorer who departed for INAC Kobe Leonessa at the start of the season. Shouldering the goal-scoring tasks for the team, she duly lived up to the expectations by finishing as her side’s top scorer.

"She [Tanaka] was the player who had been leading the team all these years," Kobayashi told "So when she left, I felt a big responsibility to score more goals for my team. I tried to maintain my goal-scoring form and help our side to victories. I think my hunger for goals, coupled with my improved fitness, ensured that I did not play badly.

"I have improved my finishing this season. As a forward, my job is to score goals. My team won't win if I can't find the back of the net. I will continue to work hard and try to earn the top-scorer award [next season]."

Realisation of early promise

In a sense, Kobayashi is very much living up to her early promise as one of Asia's rising stars. Seven years ago, the then teenager-striker announced herself on the continental scene, striking seven goals in Asia's qualifying for the 2014 FIFA U-17 Women's World Cup Costa Rica where Japan sealed passage as continental winners. Kobayashi continued to deliver at the ensuing global showpiece, scoring twice as her side clinched a maiden world crown.

She continued to make waves on the road to the 2016 FIFA U-20 Women's World Cup, scoring four times and finishing as the tournament Most Valued Player as the Young Nadeshiko again impressed. Stand-out displays saw her earn the AFC Women Young Player of the Year award in 2015. With the heralded striking-prodigy eyeing her second World Cup at Papua New Guinea 2016, however, her hopes were shattered due to an ACL injury.

"It happened in 2015 when I was in high school," she said. "I had two meniscus surgeries and spent two and a half years in rehabilitation. There was seemingly endless pain, which I was once afraid would stay with me for the rest of my life. My coaches, team-mates, family and fans gave me strong support and finally I was back to the field after completing recovery to health."

As if to make up for the lost time, Kobayashi managed 11 goals from 15 outings upon her return in the 2019 season. And she stepped up another gear this year by establishing herself as the team's new talisman.

"Despite all these hardships, I told myself never forget to enjoy the game. Playing football and having fun in it is the most important thing. I want to become a player who not only makes a positive impact on the game, but also leaves a legacy in which the fans can have fun.”

Rikako Kobayashi of Japan poses for a portrait

Olympic hopes

Kobayashi's club form didn't go unnoticed as she received her first national team call-up last year joining the Japan squad for the 2019 SheBelieves Cup. Her impact was immediate and after making her international debut in a 2-2 draw against USA, she opened her account in a 3-1 defeat of Brazil. From there, she racked up three more goals for her country, including in a 4-0 friendly victory against Canada.

With Japan playing host for next year’s Olympic Women’s Football Tournament, the in-form goal-getter has naturally switched her sights to scoring her first goal in a major international competition.

“For me, it would be a very important tournament. As a young player I am in my best time of my career and it is a period which I should cherish. I am working hard and my desires are to help my team to a good result.”