What's not to like about Homare Sawa?
FRANKFURT, Germany -- To say Japanese star midfielder and captain Homare Sawa is a veteran player is an understatement.
This is one way to put her experience, and longevity, into perspective:
U.S. coach Pia Sundhage, then a player with Team Sweden, competed against her in the 1995 World Cup. She remembers playing against Japan, which included a fresh-faced and very talented 16-year-old named Homare Sawa.
Sundhage was reminded of that bit of history.
"Is that how old I am?" Sundhage, 51, said, with a smile.
Flash forward 16 years, and Sawa, now 32, has been Japan's mainstay through three Olympic Games and now in her fifth World Cup. This is the apex of her career, as she has led Japan to its first final, facing the U.S. on Sunday for the World Cup.
Sawa signaled her talent in her first national team game at 15, scoring four goals on the Philippines. She's a truly unique star, as Americans seem to be as much in love with her as her Japanese teammates are.
"She is a very good player. She is good on both sides of the ball ... what I am impressed with is she is scoring goals," Sundhage said. "She is shorter than I am, and yet she has scored some headers. Those are all about how she reads the game."
Sawa, who stands a petite 5-foot-4, is a dominant force on the field. She is tied for the lead in 2011 World Cup goals, with Marta of Brazil, with four.
She had a hat trick against Mexico in a 4-0 win in the group stage, prompting her teammates to shower her with hugs and a big celebration after the third goal.
What makes Sawa remarkable is that she isn't slowing down. She is quick and aggressive and sets the tone for the rest of Japan's play.
She is a central midfielder, able to make runs deep into the opponent's territory, yet she's still fast enough to fall back to help defend.
Her team clearly looks to her for confidence, and she responds by being a good teammate. She made a costly giveaway in Wednesday's semifinal against Sweden, leading to the Swedes' first goal.
She made good later in the match, popping in a header for the winning goal.
"I do nothing that my teammates would not do for me," Sawa said through a translator. "We all play for each other, and with each other. That is how we succeed. We are all playing our hardest and best."
Sawa is a superstar at home, with Japanese reporters mobbing her at every turn during the World Cup. She painted her nails a striking shade of green for the semifinals, and 14 TV cameras from Japanese networks pleaded for her to show off the funky manicure. And she did, holding her nails up, over and over.
She is private, yet polite, and clearly is enjoying having her younger teammates, such as emerging star midfielders Aya Miyama and Nahomi Kawasumi, get some of her bright spotlight.
"She is a kind and fun player to be with, we are very lucky to have her as our captain," Miyama said, through a translator. "She has been the best for so many years in Japan, and we love her."
Former U.S. national team star Julie Foudy marvels at Sawa's longevity and skill. She played frequently against Sawa and Japan in international competitions, as well as in the former WUSA.
"You look at her, and her game is not leveling off or heading down, like you'd expect," said Foudy, who is an ESPN analyst and an espnW contributor. "She's really hit her stride in this World Cup. I'm thrilled to see her being so good out there.
"Her vision and anticipation have always made her so good. She knows where to be, what to do, and she goes for it. It's great to see. I think everybody is so happy for her because she is the nicest person. She really is."
U.S. forward Abby Wambach, another player who knows a little something about headers, counts herself as an admirer of Sawa, on and off the field.
"I played with her for a few years with the [WPS] Washington Freedom, played against each other when she played with the Atlanta Beat, and many years against each other on an international level -- Sawa is just really smart," Wambach said. "She puts herself in a position to be dangerous. You watch the goals she's scored, they're work-ethic goals. That header against Sweden, that's a not-give-up attitude. It's being in the right place at the right time, kind of player.
"I literally couldn't be happier for her. For her to be such an icon in her country, for her to put her team on her back, really proud of her and what she's done, putting her team in the finals and in the position to win the World Cup."