Wednesday 12 September 2018, 07:46

Prodigious Iwabuchi comes of age

  • France 2019 marks Iwabuchi’s third Women’s World Cup

  • The attacker is hailed as Japan’s new influential figure

  • She aims to lead Japan to second world title

Believe it or not, despite being just 25 years old, Mana Iwabuchi will head to France next year for her third FIFA Women's World Cup with Japan.

As a teenager, the diminutive striker played a substitute role at Germany 2011, when Japan defied all the odds to lift the trophy in surprise fashion. She would continue the internship when her side again stormed to the final at Canada 2015, only to lose out to USA.

Having garnered the necessary international experience and exposure down the years, during which Iwabuchi has gone from a burgeoning starlet to a seasoned veteran, it is fair to say the talented attacker is primed to lead Nadeshiko to their second world title.

"I was lucky to have been a part of our team for the past two Women's World Cups," the INAC Kobe Leonessa goal-getter told in a recent exclusive interview. "However, I was not in the starting line-up and I didn't play all the matches. In a sense, I was an apprentice to those experienced players. So the 2019 Women's World Cup provides me with an opportunity to lead the team to another success if I am in the squad."

The new leader Iwabuchi exploded on to the scene in the 2008 FIFA U-17 Women's World Cup New Zealand, during which she dazzled the spectators with her assists and goals. Although Japan fell to England at the quarter-final stage, the tricky forward won the adidas Golden Ball for her eye-catching displays, even though she was just 15 at the time.

Three years later, after making her debut in 2010, she was heading to Germany with the senior side. For Iwabuchi, Japan's fairy tale run to gold remains an inspiring memory which she draws from today.

"I was a teenager and simply excited to be there," she reflected, having been utilised as a substitute. "To be honest, I spent a fair amount of time on the bench, so I was often watching my team mates play. But I could feel the atmosphere and I got nervous. All I could say was wow."

While making consistent improvements with Nadeshiko, Iwabuchi moved to Germany in 2012 where she enjoyed two spells with Hoffenheim and Bayern Munich across five seasons. Having long been hailed as the player to lead Japan for the years to come, she truly lived up to the expectations in the 2018 AFC Women's Asian Cup by firing Japan to the title.

With the tournament doubling up as Asia's qualifier to France 2019, a new-look Japan under Asako Takakura conquered all to book their ticket to the Women's World Cup. Iwabuchi excelled throughout, scoring twice and posing a constant threat, performances which aw her leave as the Most Valuable Player.

"It was true joy for us to defend the Asian title," she said. "Personally, it is such an honour to claim the MVP title. However, it was the team efforts that counted so the awards belonged to the entire squad, not me."

That Asian campaign saw Iwabuchi firmly establish herself as a hugely influential figure in the team. Her influence shone again in August, as Japan doubled the year’s continental success by bagging gold at the Asian Games. Having spent the past decade making progress, she will enter her third Women’s World Cup as the team’s key player.

“The current team are different [from the past two Women’s World Cups]. You can’t compare your present role to the one before. Everybody is responsible for their own role in this team and so am I.

“The fact is that we are a new team with young and less-experienced players, including me. So, we go to France next year as challengers. On the other hand, though, we have made it to the final in the past two Women’s World Cups. We need to balance our performances as both tournament challengers and two-time finalists. That will be the key [to our success].”