By Jack Tarrant
TOKYO (Reuters) – When Japan won the women’s World Cup in 2011, Saki Kumagai was just 20 years old but eight years and over 100 caps later, the Olympique Lyonnais defender is preparing to lead a young Japanese side into France 2019.
Captain Kumagai is one of four players, along with Aya Sameshima, Rumi Utsugi and Mizuho Sakaguchi, to have over 100 caps in coach Asako Takakura’s squad.
However, whilst the World Cup winning squad of 2011 averaged over 52 caps each, this time around the average is less than 38 caps with 14 players aged 23 or younger.
Kumagai is excited by the influx of youth.
“Young players tend to have no fear,” Kumagai told Reuters via email.
“We would like to create an environment where players could play freely.
“Age does not matter when you are on the pitch, so I am not worried about anything at all.”
The young players in the Japanese squad, many of whom play for dominant club side Nippon TV Beleza, will be looking to Kumagai for both her experience and her understanding of French soccer.
Kumagai has been playing for Lyon, winners of the last three Champions League titles, since 2013.
“It is the third World Cup for me; I think I know the atmosphere of the World Cup as we well as how difficult the first match could be,” said Kumagai, referring to Japan’s opener against Argentina on June 10.
“There are things you only can understand from your own experiences. At the same time I would like to play a leadership role.
“We are a young team but that could be a strength too. I think it is helpful that I can speak French and I know the local climate and food,” continued Kumagai.
“It is almost like an extension of my normal life here, so I think it is very advantageous.”
Despite their relatively low ranking of seventh in the world, Japan will take great confidence from winning both the Asian Cup and the Asian Games gold medal in 2018.
All of which has Kumagai dreaming of a repeat of 2011.
“There is nothing happier than becoming the champion,” said Kumagai.
“I can never forget the scene I saw from the podium in 2011. I would love to see it with my team mates again.”
(Reporting by Jack Tarrant, editing by Julien Pretot)