- Kumi Yokoyama a key figure in Japan's new-look side
- Yokoyama is one of the few females to be shortlisted for a FIFA Puskas Award
- The 2011 world champions are rebuilding under new coach Asako Takakura
If Kumi Yokoyama's scoring form is anything to go by, it seems that the 23-year-old forward looks set to continue her new-found role as the talisman of Japanese women's football.
The No9 finished as joint-top scorer in March's Algarve Cup alongside Denmark's Pernille Harder with four goals. But all the more impressive was the way she played. The diminutive 155-cm striker dazzled spectators through her mazy runs and finishing. Yokoyama opened her account in the 2-1 loss against eventual champions Spain in the opener, grabbed a brace as they beat Norway 2-0 before wrapping up her campaign with goal in a 3-2 loss to Netherlands. Japan may have finished with a modest fifth place, but Yokoyama's eye-catching performances have truly established her as a key player in Asako Takakura's new-look Nadeshiko.
Such displays may be pleasing and encouraging for most emerging players. Yokoyama was, however, far from satisfied reflecting on her performances in what was her first international tournament with the senior national team. "My aim was to score in every match," she told FIFA.com with an air of disappointment in her voice. "But I failed to make it because I couldn't find the back of the net against Iceland. This shows that I have to train harder. Of course, I wanted to score and my team won. So it was disappointing that I scored and my team didn't win."
For Yokoyama, it was the collective lessons learned and experiences gained during the tournament that is most important. "After playing in the Algarve Cup, we know what we are capable of and meanwhile, we are aware in which areas we need to improve,” she said. “We are clear about our place in the world of women’s football."
It wasn't the first time that Yokoyama impressed the watching world through her goal-scoring talents. She exploded on the international scene in the 2010 FIFA U-17 World Cup, managing to score six times as Japan finished second in Trinidad & Tobago. Notably, she scored in the semi-final victory against Korea DPR with a slalom run reminiscent of Diego Maradona in his pomp. So impressive was the goal, that it was eventually short-listed for the FIFA Puskas Award.
Despite the significance and stunning visual impact of the goal, Yokoyama maintained that her best is yet to come. She said: "My career is still running, so I wouldn't single out a goal as the most memorable until after my retirement."
The 2010 FIFA U-17 World Cup proved a launching pad for Yokoyama’s emergence. Yokoyama figured prominently as Japan stormed into the last four at the 2012 FIFA U-20 World Cup on home soil, before graduating into the senior side three years later. However, she didn't earn a regular place until Takakura assumed the reins last year.
— なでしこジャパン (@jfa_nadeshiko) April 11, 2017
Yokoyama's recent rise to form and fame came as a timely boost for a desperate Japan. Having failed in last year's Asian qualifying for the Olympic Women's Football Tournament Rio 2016 - their first absence since 2000 - Japan underwent managerial switches with Takakura replacing Norio Sasaki. Under the former Nadeshiko midfielder, a series of young talents have broken into the squad. Already an established star, Yokoyama is all too aware what role she is expected to play in the new-look team.
"We have a much younger team than before," she said. "And it makes us a fresher team. This means that I am no longer a 'young player' in this team. I have duties of leading the young players and telling them of the Nadeshiko’s spirits and traditions which our former generations have forged. I should shoulder the responsibility through my play and attitude."
The 2018 AFC Women's Asian Cup, which also serves as a qualifier for the next FIFA Women's World Cup™, is now just a year away. According to Yokoyama, Japan will work against time to prepare in order to seal passage to the global showpiece. "We will learn how to play well both as an individual and a team. It is important for us to strive to achieve further development. We are a new generation and we want to be the world champions again.