Arsenal ladies are set to play São José in the final of the Women’s Club World Championship at the Ajinomoto Nishigaoka Stadium in Tokyo this Saturday, after an impressive 2–0 victory over Japanese side Okayama Yunogo Belle. To the delight of the locals, they got there thanks to a brace from Nadeshiko striker Shinobu Ohno, who signed for the Gunners along with compatriot Yukari Kinga at the start of the year.
By Matthew Hernon
The pair enjoyed a successful start to their careers in North London, helping the club win the FA Cup in June with full-back Kinga scoring in the final. So how different is it playing in England compared to Japan? What did it feel like lifting the World Cup? Just how good are Homare Sawa and Kelly Smith? Weekender met up with the ladies at Arsenal’s training ground this Autumn to find out.
Firstly how would you describe your first ten months at Arsenal?
Kinga: It has taken some getting used to. It’s been quite an unsettling time at the club with the change of manager and everything. Also the style of play is so different here. We really want to show that Japanese players are capable of performing in one of the world’s toughest leagues; however, in order to do that we have to adapt our game quite a lot. It’s been hard, but it is getting easier.
Ohno: There is a big gap between English and Japanese players. They are not only physically stronger but also better individually. While we are generally quick, nimble and work well as a team in Japan, we tend not to take risks. I’ve learned how important it is to express yourself when you get the ball here.
What have you enjoyed most about being in the UK? What do you miss about Japan?
Ohno: I love randomly seeing horses when I am just walking down the street. I probably miss hot springs more than anything.
Kinga: English pubs are a lot of fun. It’s also great being able to watch Premier League games live in the stadium. Not having any convenience stores around is a bit of a drag though!
Would you encourage more Japanese players to play in England?
Kinga: It’s not just a case of Japanese players wanting to come here and play: they have to prove that they are good enough to do so. At the moment we don’t have enough players who are at that level.
Yet you are the World Champions…
Ohno: I’m still not sure how we managed that! It was a bit of a miracle to be honest [laughs]. Of course, since winning the World Cup we have gained a lot of confidence as a team, but we still don’t see ourselves as one of the best sides in the world. There are many stronger teams with better players.
Kinga: I think we’ll see our real level at next year’s tournament in Canada. If we win again, there will be a lot more interest in Japanese players.
What was the feeling after you won in 2011?
Ohno: Once the game finished I think we felt more relieved than anything else; we’d somehow managed to get over the line. At that point we didn’t really think we had done anything special. It was only after we returned to Japan that we realized what an achievement it was. Seeing the reaction from the public here was a real shock.
Kinga: There was hardly any interest in the women’s game in Japan before 2011; now you see much higher attendance, games on TV, reports in the newspapers—that is all down to the World Cup victory.
Homare Sawa was and still is the key figure in the side. Just how good is she?
Kinga: She’s the best player I’ve ever played with.
Ohno: Yes I would say the same. She’s a very good talker of the game, but she also backs her words up with actions on the pitch. There aren’t many players who can do that. As well as winning games for us with her attacking play, she also does a lot of work defensively. She is indispensable to the team.
Kelly Smith is similarly inspirational for both Arsenal and England. How would you compare the two players?
Kinga: I think they are different. Kelly is more attack-minded with an amazing free-kick, whereas Sawa does a lot of good work helping out the back four. That said, they both have the ability to change a game on their own, so in that sense you could say they are quite similar.
Finally who would you describe as the best player you have played against?
Kinga: Being a full-back I would have to say a winger like America’s Megan Rapinoe. She always gives me a hard game whenever I play against her. She is really tricky with great movement off the ball and terrific variation in her passing. Another tough opponent is Cristiane of Brazil. She is direct and powerful, regularly coming up with goals when it really matters.
Ohno: I would go for American keeper Hope Solo. The US team have a really strong back line, but if you do manage to breach it she is always there blocking everything you throw at her. During the Olympic final we played one of our best ever games, causing the American backline a lot of problems, yet we couldn’t seem to get the ball past her. That was why we had to settle for a silver medal.
Main Image: Striker Shinobu Ohno. Images courtesy of Arsenal Ladies
Women’s Club World Championship
6 December 2014 Ajinomoto Nishigaoka Field
Third place play-off: Urawa Red Diamonds vs Okayama Yunogo Belle, 11:35
Final: Arsenal vs São José, 15:10
More information: www.jpnsport.go.jp/nishigaoka/tabid/127/Default.aspx (Japanese only)