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Recognised as the finest Japanese female player to have ever played the game, Sawa made here first appearance in a World Cup Finals in 1995, playing three games in Sweden, as Japan went out at the quarter final stage following a 4-0 loss to the US. After three appearances in each of the next three tournaments in the US and China, Sawa came to prominence at the world level with a stellar tournament performance in Germany in 2011. Sawa played all six of Japan's matches as they lifted their first World Cup trophy following a dramatic penalty shoot-out win against the US in the Final. With Japan looking set to lose out in extra time, Sawa hit a stunning equaliser with three minutes remaining to send the game to penalties. That goal was her tournament leading fifth of the Finals, earning Sawa the Golden Boot as top-scorer, along with the Golden Ball award as the Best Player. Her performance also saw her named the 2011 Female World Player of the Year. The support the Japanese girls received back home during the last World Cup was exceptional and Sawa is hoping for more of the same this time around. "Many, many people supported us," Sawa said. "With that power we could win the title again." Sawa made her professional debut in Japan's L-League in 1991, aged just 12. Her international debut came at 15 in 1993 and her World Cup Finals debut aged 16. With nearly 25 years experience in the women's game, Sawa has seen a lot change, especially in her home country. "Talking especially about Japan, before, like about 20 years ago, the number of registered players was very small," she revealed. "Also the skills and technique were not enough. It's been very long from that time until 2011, but year by year I think we've developed." There's been a lot of talk about the legacy of the women's game in Canada after this tournament, but Japan's win four years ago sparked a marked increase in interest in the women's game in the country. After 2011, the awareness and attention among the Japanese people changed dramatically and the country went from 35,000 registered players at girls to senior level before 2011 to its current level of almost 50,000. Still not phenomenal numbers for a country of 127 million but a step in the right direction. To put that into perspective, there are 4.8 million registered female players worldwide, with Canada and the US making up 47% of that number. Sawa will be hoping to generate more interest this time around and add to her 18 World Cup Finals appearances this month. Although no-one else has reached that milestone of appearing in six tournaments before, the Japanese midfielder is likely to find herself having company with that honour in Canada, with Brazilian midfielder Formiga also poised to reach the six tournament milestone. An appearance for Sawa tonight, however, will see her reach the achievement first. It will be quite the feat for Sawa, but one which the 36-year-old looked like missing out upon after falling out of favour with head coach Norio Sasaki in recent months through injury and a dip in form. Sawa wasn't selected for Japan's 23 woman squad for the Algarve Cup tournament in March this year. A major setback for the midfielder's hopes, but after Japan finished second bottom of their group, and ninth overall in the tournament, Sasaki had a rethink and felt that the squad needed a player of Sawa's experience for the upcoming Finals in Canada. Sasaki's late change of heart filled Sawa with boy joy and relief. "It's a very special feeling to wear the jersey of the national team," Sawa said. "I want to play for the team and for Japan in order to get a good result in the World Cup." With her recent injury concerns, is Sawa ready to go in the tournament? She certainly looked the part at training, cutting a striking figure with her long ponytail, and the veteran feels she's ready to play a key role once again for Japan on the world stage, but she's not taking anything for granted. "I am ready to play 90 minutes but it depends on the head coach," Sawa continued. "It's his decision whether I will play on the pitch or not but I am ready." As defending champions, a lot of eyes will be on Japan to see if they can follow in Germany's footsteps and win back to back titles. Watching them train, they come across as a slick, well-oiled machine, running relentless, productive and impressive attacking drills. Despite sitting fourth in FIFA's Women World Rankings, they'll be hard to beat if they can play to their best. But just how much improvement should we expect to see from the team from four years ago? "That's something that I want you to see in the games!," Sawa joked. "That's difficult for me to explain." The group stage should prove to be little concern for Japan. Drawn alongside Ecuador (ranked 48th in the world) and Cameroon (ranked 53rd), their toughest game will be their first one against Switzerland tonight. The Swiss are ranked 19th in the world and do pose a threat after a strong qualifying campaign that saw them go undefeated, recording nine wins and one draw, banging in 53 goals in the process and conceding just one. Japan may be the favourites, but they're not taking anything for granted against the Swiss. "Switzerland are newcomers to the World Cup, but they're one of the strongest teams in Europe," Sawa said of the match. "Even though we have won the title four years ago, we are still challengers. We'll respect Switzerland and we want to show our style of football." We'll see just what that is, and what threat the Swiss pose, at 7pm this evening at BC Place.
This isn't the first football World Cup to be played on artificial turf. Finland hold that "honour" in 2003 when ten of the matches in the U17 Men's World Cup were played on such pitches, including the final. Two years later, Peru hosted the whole tournament on them and Canada played several games at the Men's U20 World Cup in 2007 on the surface. In the Women's game, the 2012 and 2014 U17 World Cups were played on the surface in Azerbaijan and Costa Rica, as was last year's U20 World Cup here in Canada. Elsewhere, a number of World Cup and EURO qualifiers have been played on non grass pitches. It doesn't make it right, that's an argument for another time for this grass lover, but it does show the growing acceptance of the pitches around the world. What that means is that a number of women in this year's World Cup have played on an artificial pitch, whether at international or club level. The flip side of that though is that the vast majority likely haven't and as such, their unfamiliarity with such surfaces could very well impact their performances and their team's results. As of Thursday, all bar six teams had already arrived in Canada to acclimatise to both surroundings, time zones and football turf. How used can you get to such a surface in a short period of time if you've never set foot on one before? Or seldom have? It will certainly give some teams and some players a competitive advantage. But what can you do? Well you could moan a lot like Abby Wambach or you could say ok, this is the hand we've been dealt, let's get on with it. And that's just what Australia have done, going as far as to say, well if you can't beat them, join them in the whole turf debate, and having a special artificial surface constructed for them to play and practice on ahead of the World Cup. "We were lucky enough to have one built for us back in Australia," Matilda's midfielder Katrina Gorry told AFTN. "We've been training on it pretty much since January. So we've had a bit of experience in the last six months. Obviously America and Canada pretty much play all their games on turf so they're probably more experienced on it. "But in the last six months, we've had a lot of experience on it. We've come to terms that we're going to be playing on it so that's not really in our minds any more, we're just here to play. The turf is just a part of it." That certainly seems to be the right attitude to have. The reigning World Cup Champions, Japan, have BC Place as their home for two of their group games, and maybe more as the tournament goes on. They seem pretty unfazed by the whole turf issue. Former Women's Player of the Year and 2011 World Cup winner, Homare Sawa, is non-plussed by the fuss surrounding the artificial surfaces and the woman regarded as the best Japanese player of all time is in fact very used to playing on such pitches from her many years playing in the US and with her current club, INAC Kobe Leonessa. "I train on artificial grass when I train with my club in Kobe every day," Sawa told reporters through a translator at training on Tuesday. "So it's just natural to me." Japan coach Norio Sasaki takes that attitude a step further and feels that the turf will actually be a benefit to his team because of the way that they play their football. "Japan has had a training camp in Japan for two weeks before coming to Canada," Sasaki told reporters through a translator. "We trained on grass rather than artificial turf. For Japan, we don't think that we need to change the style of football. It's kind of like an advantage for Japan because we move the ball a lot compared to other countries." We'll get a good idea just how much of an advantage or a leveller Canada's turf pitches will be for certain teams pretty soon. We'll also get an idea of just how the pitches are accepted across the world with a view to future tournaments being held on artificial surfaces. Will we ever see a senior men's World Cup played completely on football turf? You still feel it's unlikely, but if one ever is, Canada will be remembered for leading the way.