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The Xtra Historic Moment: Iwabuchi Reflects on Winning the Golden Ball Award "I Thought It Was a Joke"

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Prince Jean

Jun 25, 2024

The World Cup Throwback

Every day, XtrAfrica highlights a World Cup record. Today’s spotlight is on Mana Iwabuchi, whose brilliance at the 2008 U-17 Women's World Cup earned her the Golden Ball award. Credit:FIFA

Mana Iwabuchi, renowned for her mesmerizing dribbling skills, defense-splitting passes, and goalscoring prowess, captivated fans at the inaugural FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup in 2008. Despite Japan's quarter-final exit to England, her exceptional performances earned her the prestigious Golden Ball award. In a candid interview with FIFA, Iwabuchi shares her memories, career highlights, and thoughts on the future of women's football.

Iwabuchi's talent was evident from the beginning. Her outstanding performance in the U-17 World Cup showcased her as a rising star, despite Japan’s early exit. Reflecting on that tournament, she says, “That was my first international tournament, so everything was fresh and exciting. Winning the Golden Ball was a surreal experience; I thought it was a joke.”

After her breakthrough, Iwabuchi became a fixture in Japan’s national team. She was instrumental in Japan’s triumph at the 2011 FIFA Women’s World Cup, becoming the youngest player in the squad. “I was trying desperately to keep up with my older teammates. Winning that trophy felt like they won it for me,” she recalls. Her journey included stints at top clubs such as Bayern Munich, Arsenal, and Tottenham Hotspur, further solidifying her legacy.

Iwabuchi’s career is decorated with numerous accolades, including 90 caps and 37 goals for the national team. She was part of Japan’s squad that reached the finals of the 2012 Women’s Olympic Football Tournament and the 2015 Women’s World Cup. Despite falling short to the USA in both instances, Iwabuchi reflects on the toughness of the competition and the resilience of her team.

Announcing her retirement in September 2023, Iwabuchi is now exploring new opportunities, including TV commentary and promoting women’s football. She emphasizes the importance of enjoying the game, advising young players to see tournaments like the U-17 World Cup as stepping stones. “My message to young girls is to just enjoy playing football. Consider this tournament as a stepping stone and enjoy it as much as you can.”

Iwabuchi is optimistic about the future of women's football, especially with the expansion of the U-17 World Cup to 24 teams. She believes that this change will provide more opportunities for young talents worldwide, despite potential disparities in team quality. Reflecting on the 2023 Women’s World Cup final, she praised Spain's victory and expressed her belief in Japan’s potential to reach the pinnacle of world football again.

As she embarks on a new chapter, Iwabuchi is committed to promoting football and inspiring the next generation. “I haven’t fully made up my mind, but I’ve done some TV commentary and activities promoting women’s football. I simply want to have a fulfilling, enjoyable life in retirement,” she says.

Mana Iwabuchi’s journey from a teenage prodigy to a football icon is inspiring. Her career, marked by resilience, talent, and dedication, leaves a lasting legacy. As she continues to contribute to the sport off the pitch, her story remains a beacon of inspiration for young footballers worldwide.

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