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Homare Sawa is captain of Japan's World Cup winning soccer team

Her team were shown images of tsunami before matches at the World Cup last year

Sawa was named FIFA's female player of the year in 2011

Denies being a national symbol and puts success down to hard work

CNN —  

If there is anyone who embodies the fighting spirit of Japan’s disaster-laden year, it is Homare Sawa.

The 33-year-old is the captain of Japan’s women’s soccer team who lifted the FIFA Women’s World Cup in Germany last June. Despite being huge underdogs her team made it through to the final of the tournament where they beat the highly fancied United States.

Before the competition began the team had little financial backing and was practically ignored by the Japanese public still reeling from the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster in Fukushima.

So when the Japanese talk about “ganbaro” (Japanese for standing firm in the face of unspeakable odds), Sawa’s success is a shining example of how it’s possible.

“We fought for ourselves and for Japan,” says Sawa.

Before the matches at the World Cup, Japan’s coach showed the team images of tsunami-devastated towns where nearly 20,000 people perished.

“It was hard to believe the images were of Japan. I became very sad, even though it was right before our matches. The images urged us to move forward as a team and we strongly felt that we had to get to the finals. We were very thankful that we could play soccer when there are many people affected by the earthquake,” says Sawa.

As the team progressed through the competition, the final loomed against the U.S.. Japan had not managed to beat the Americans in 25 previous matches.

“For some strange reason, I just didn’t feel like we could lose ,” says Sawa.

“I’m not sure why, perhaps a sixth sense. It wasn’t just me either. My teammates were also feeling like we couldn’t lose. Maybe we felt this way because Japan was giving us power.”

Across Japan, fans watched in the early morning hours, crying and screaming as their team won against all the odds.

The fairy tale wasn’t over for Sawa, who was recently named FIFA’s female player of the year.

It was the high point of a career spent toiling in a sport that’s unappreciated in Japan and underfunded by sponsors.

Around 25,000 girls play football in Japan, but there are no professional leagues for women. Sawa herself played on a boy’s team. The pay gap between the genders is stark and most of the members of Sawa’s World Cup team have full time jobs and could only train in the evenings. Sawa now sees that lack of opportunity as an asset.

“Thinking back now, my technique probably improved because I played with boys and perhaps I became mentally stronger, too, because I didn’t want to lose to them,” she says.

Sawa emerged as a gifted athlete, making her first international debut at the age of 15.

She says she believed she would be married by the age of 28 and have children. But the dream of being the world’s best player kept her on the pitch.

That dream has been achieved and Sawa is now looking ahead to the Olympic Games in London.

She hopes the disparity between men’s and women’s teams in Japan will close if her team can bring home a medal.

“If we can do well at the Olympics, maybe some players may switch from having to work full-time to part-time.”

When asked if she feels she is a national symbol, Sawa laughs and shakes her head. “No, no, no. Not at all,” she says.

She acknowledges that her win inspired Japanese fans and she does offer advice to young girls who want to achieve in sport.

“It has been a long time since I set the goal of winning the World Cup and I want to communicate the importance of having a goal,” she said. “It’s easy for people to want to see results quickly, but it takes time. I’d encourage them to keep at it.”