There can be no greater moment in a footballer’s career than lifting a FIFA World Cup. When Kozue Ando and her Japanese team-mates claimed Asia’s first-ever world title at senior level in 2011, it came at the end of a road that was arguably more difficult than the ones trodden by past winners.
While Japan had long been counted among Asia’s leading nations when it came to women’s football, the Nadeshiko had rarely featured at the top end of the global game. But that was all to change in Germany in 2011.
Victory over the United States courtesy of a penalty shoot-out in the final saw Japan elevated to the game’s upper tier. The win was the pinnacle of a remarkable run that saw the Japanese bypass such giants of the game as Germany and Sweden.
“The moment when the gold confetti went into the air as we lifted the cup – that is my best memory,” Ando told the FIFA World Football Museum.
“But when I think of the World Cup in 2011, I also have to mention the quarter-final against Germany. It was a special one for me as I felt Germany was my second home after transferring to the Bundesliga in 2010.
“Playing against my team-mates as opponents and with the ‘away’ end packed with German supporters, and coincidentally it was my birthday ... I had so many feelings and worked hard to show my best on the pitch.”
Japan had reached the last eight after qualifying alongside England from a group that also included Mexico and New Zealand, and Norio Sasaki’s team saw off the Germans – then the defending champions – thanks to a Karina Maruyama goal in extra time.
“The key (to winning the title) was the first game of the knockout stage, the quarter-final against Germany,” said Ando. “We had never won against them, so each player tried to play her very best, no matter what the result would be.
“After playing for 120 minutes and beating such a strong opponents for the first time, the team gained huge confidence. We became stronger as a team and, after that game, we didn’t think we were going to lose against any other team.”
A 3-1 victory over Sweden in the semi-final set up a meeting in the final against the United States – two-time tournament winners and the undoubted favourites. The Japanese, though, were not to be overawed. And, with the tournament being played just three months after the devastating Great East Japan Earthquake, Ando and her team-mates were ready for anything.
“There were so many people affected by the earthquake and we weren’t sure whether it was right for us to play football in that situation,” she said.
“But, we thought that what we can do as footballers was to play with our strength and send a message of courage to Japan. Before each match, we promised ourselves that we would run until the end, play with our hearts and that we would not play just for ourselves but for the nation.
“The team gained confidence as we progressed and we were encouraged by the support and messages we received from back home. We didn’t feel any pressure but were excited as the Final approached.”
They were right to be excited. The final finished with the sides level at 2-2, even after extra-time. Penalties were needed to separate the teams, resulting in an emotional win for Japan as the country claimed its first World Cup title. In doing so, the team played a key role in helping to change attitudes in the nation towards women’s football forever.
“When I was a small kid, girls playing football was rare and people were surprised when they saw me on the pitch,” she said.
“Now we see girls in kindergarten and schools playing the game with boys and there are so many girls who dream of becoming a national team player. Whenever I see them, it makes me very happy.”
A shirt Ando wore during that 2011 tournament is on display in the museum’s homage to the FIFA Women’s World Cup, and the midfielder is hoping to be reacquainted with the it some day in the future.
“It is a great honour that my shirt is displayed at the FIFA museum,” she said.
“I feel thankful to my family, team-mates, coaches and everyone who has been involved. The shirt I wore at the FIFA Women’s World Cup has a lot of memories and feelings in it. My friend visited the museum and showed me a picture of my shirt. I also want to visit one day!”
We hope that one day she can...