Thursday, May 13, 2021

Mana Iwabuchi: ‘I want to show girls in Japan they can dream about playing football’

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The Aston Villa forward discusses breaking through in her early teens, representing Japan in Europe, and the home Olympics

Mana Iwabuchi is not your average footballer. She made her debut for Japan’s most successful women’s club, NTV Beleza, at the age of 14 and won the World Cup when she was 18. At the start of this year she took on the challenge of moving back across the world in the midst of a pandemic, joining Aston Villa in a high-profile transfer.

Perhaps because she has spent her adult life – and a sizeable chunk before it – in the glare of the spotlight, the 28-year-old player is not fazed by many things. “I didn’t feel any pressure,” she says of the fervour that surrounded her emergence as a mazy dribbling teenager with a lethal eye for goal. “All I felt was that I liked playing football. I think I became more aware of the pressure after I became an adult. I only really considered myself an adult in the last two or three years.”

Despite the accompanying Covid-19 difficulties, the newly mature Iwabuchi is convinced her decision to leave INAC Kobe Leonessa in her homeland and head back to Europe – she previously had spells in Germany with Hoffenheim and Bayern Munich – was the right one. “I’m the kind of person who has confidence in the route I choose, so I don’t have any regrets,” the Tokyo native says of her latest challenge.

The restrictions in place have complicated settling in – Iwabuchi admits she has yet to familiarise herself with the city and hardly goes out for fear of catching the virus and causing trouble for the club, spending her time at home cooking and watching Japanese television – but she has been hugely impressed by the quality of football in England.

“Players are coming from all over the world, and the fact they’re here adds real fascination to the league,” she says of the WSL, where Villa are battling to stay up with two games left. “For me I think it is the best in the world.

“The style is different, and I feel like I’m learning a new type of football. I’m in the middle of studying the good points of English football, but on the other hand I also recognise the strengths of the Japanese game,” she adds, citing technique as an advantage for Japanese players while referencing the physicality of those in England.

Iwabuchi acknowledges size and speed . . .

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