Pure Joy

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“I want to become a professional footballer.”

Honestly, my parents never heard me say these words out loud.

Even myself, I’m not sure when I decided that’s what I wanted to do with my life as a “job.” It just happened naturally. Ever since I can remember, I’ve always played football.

Maybe in the back of their minds, my parents thought I would try to be a pro some day, but they have always just watched over me. They have never, ever denied me and “my thing.” They've always affirmed me, supported me and never interfered.

I don’t remember exactly when I kicked a football for the first time. Perhaps it was when I was five years old. I suppose it was the touch and the feeling that captivated me. Well, actually, the most important thing to me at the time would have been to never lose to my brother, who is three years older than me.

Courtesy Yui Hasegawa

Although there was no goal, no woodwork, and no net in the little park near our home, we were very happy with just a ball. We played keepie-uppie or just kicked the ball up in the air as high as we could. In hindsight, that was probably not a suitable game for a little girl. But I loved the feeling of a successful first-touch more than anything. When I failed, I asked my brother to challenge me again and again. I hated to lose at anything, really. And it was so much fun!

When I was six, I joined a local team that my brother played for, and I started to play with boys. From the very beginning, I always loved to play skillfully – dribbling or making quick turns – because my body was small even then. My idols were Ronaldinho and Shinji Ono and I enjoyed watching their tricky performances. I watched all the World Cups they played in, and I wanted to be just like them, playing on the biggest stage against the top players in the world – that was my vague feeling at the time. 

I remember Ronaldinho’s tricks such as the “chapeu,” fooling the defenders by popping up the ball over their head, and the “elastico,” touching the ball with the outside of his boot and then back inside quickly. But I could never do the latter move properly, no matter how many times I tried. And my brother was good at it, so I didn’t try to compete with him, because like I said, I hated to lose at anything, even a trick! 

When I was 10, I went to watch a Cup Final which Beleza won. That’s when I had the thought for the first time: I really want to play for Beleza one day. The reason it left such a strong impression on me is the way they played. Beleza passed the ball elegantly in attack and each player was very skillful. It was a perfect style for me and my body – because I love to play technically rather than physically. Since that day, I focused only on joining Menina, the youth team of Beleza. 

I must join Menina. This was the only thought in my head. I trained at a park until 10 p.m. every day to make my dream a reality. 

Menina was the only club I tried out for. No other clubs. Looking back, it was an extraordinary choice that makes me astonished now. If I had failed, what would have happened? I’m wondering about it now. But at the time, Menina was the only team I yearned to join. 

Fortunately, I passed the test and embarked on a new life, commuting about an hour and a half to the training ground every day. After junior high school classes, my mother picked me up, and I changed clothes and put my luggage in the car and she dropped me at the nearby train station. Then I changed trains twice to get to Nishitokyo. There was another Menina teammate at the same junior high school, so we would sometimes go to the practice field together. But no matter how much we hurried, we would arrive only a few minutes before the 5:30 p.m. training session. 

For those who don’t know, Menina is a youth team where players aged 12 to 18 train together. At the beginning, there were a lot of players much older than me, who had very big bodies and really good skills. But I didn’t feel intimidated at all by being part of such a group. On the contrary, I enjoyed it so much. I am a person who seldom gets depressed or feels low, so I didn’t worry about it. Instead I really enjoyed playing for Menina, the club I had craved to get into!

I think that kind of personality is something I inherited from my parents and because of the way I was brought up. I was optimistic by nature, and they’ve never directed me. If I had told them I wanted to quit football, they wouldn’t have denied it. 

“You can do as you like,” I’m sure they would have said. 

My parents have never even told me to study, to be honest. But Menina was a club which also valued academics and imposed penalties if a player got a bad grade, so I was doing my studies at the very least.

In Europe, people are sometimes surprised when I tell them I have a university degree. I started playing matches for the first team of Beleza from the age of 16, but the women’s league was not yet professional at that time, so I went to university on the advice of Menina’s coach.

“You should go to university for your future,” he said. 

When I graduated, there was still no professional women’s league in Japan. But luckily Risa Shimizu, who now plays for West Ham, and I were provided with an environment where we could focus solely on football without other jobs.

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From the age of 15, I watched both the female players at Beleza and the male players at Verdy, who used the training ground next door, so I was somewhat aware of the differences in the way they were treated. The women practiced after finishing their work for a living, while the men lived on football alone. But at the time, I didn’t think of it as inequality. Rather, I thought it was inevitable. Women’s football  is not as popular as men's football. I understood that. 

However, I kept playing because it was so much fun. The playing style I learnt in the three years between graduating from university and leaving my beloved Beleza still helps me a lot. For example, the basics of positional play in the 4–3–3 system were instilled in me. Why you should be positioned there, what happens if you move there, how you move the ball around, etc. Having developed the mindset and positioning that led to my current style of play, I became more comfortable playing against bigger players.

Since I was a child, I’ve had a desire to play abroad. When I was in elementary school, I admired the United States, which was particularly strong in the women’s game, but after junior high, I started watching European football and I wanted to move to a team in England. But it seemed difficult to be transferred directly from Japan, so I intended to move to a club in one of the other European countries. 

Then AC Milan came calling.

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As the women’s team had just been formed, the environment was not that great, and the level of the league in Italy was about the same as that in Japan. It was the first time for me living abroad, and it was very cold there in January. I even had a new experience playing football on a snow-covered pitch. Fortunately, my teammates and the staff trusted me, so I could express my attributes even though it was just a half-season I played in Milan. It helped me a lot to be able to communicate in English because there were many foreign players. Having studied English when I was a little girl, I could understand almost everything my teammates said, even though I haven’t studied English “properly.” I am still not very good at speaking, though. But I can understand! 

After Milan, I transferred to West Ham in the Women’s Super League. In the first few matches, I felt the high level of football in the league first-hand. But the playing style of Manchester City was very familiar to me. They performed positional play in the 4–3–3 formation and built up carefully from the back like their men’s team did. That was when I had the same intuition I’d had when I'd first seen the Beleza match.

I was dying to play for Manchester City. 

I was extremely happy when City gave me an offer after the season. The environment at the club is very good and the stadium is great. They even announced plans to expand the facilities for the women’s team recently. Normally, the social media accounts for the men’s team and women’s team are separated, but they use the same one here at City. I am so proud to be a part of a club that values the women as much as the men.

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I am grateful to play in front of a huge crowd, too. Of course, I do the same preparation for any match, whether it is the World Cup, or the Olympics, or for the club. But it feels great to perform in front of many people and in a good atmosphere that brings out the best in me and makes me happier.

Manchester City Women’s is also a team that is not quite satisfied with merely winning. We have a certain vision of football which aims to build up play from our goalkeeper, looking for the opponents’ gaps and trying again if it doesn’t work. It is a playing style to approach the goal after passing the ball 30 or 40 times. 

I love this philosophy and the club so much. And I enjoy this style of football from the bottom of my heart. That is why I want to achieve big success with this club. It was definitely a success to qualify for the Women’s Champions League next season. It will be the first time for me to play in the competition and I really look forward to it. Now I am focusing on the league, even though the Olympics await after the season. Of course, it will be better than anything if I can go to Paris after winning the Super League.  

The Olympics are a spectacle that many people watch all over Japan and I want to perform in a way that they enjoy and will be proud to cheer for us. This is how I felt at the World Cup last year as well. Just as I admired Ronaldinho playing in the World Cup when I was a little girl, I hope that I can now convey the joy of football to girls in Japan and England and all around the world. 

Because football is much more fun when you actually kick the ball rather than when you watch it, or especially when you talk about it like this!

– Yui