Farewell to a Champion

This week a woman who defined a generation of greatness in her sport called it a career.  Although we're poorer without her, we're much richer thanks to her legacy.

Homare Sawa was the face and spirit of the Japanese women's national team, and was a champion at every level.  The sport is far stronger today than when she arrived, and thanks to her has a bright and exciting future.

If the only remarkable thing about Sawa was her longevity, it would still put her in the very top of the pantheon of women's soccer.  Sawa has competed in six consecutive World Cups, a feat she shares with only one other person (Brazil's Formiga).  Sawa made her national team debut at the age of 15.  She made her first division debut at the age of twelve

For once, the extraordinary prodigy became an extraordinary talent - but that wasn't the story of Homare Sawa.  The 2011 World Cup seemed to come out of absolutely nowhere, but it wasn't - it was patiently built, game after game, year after year.  Japan was an overnight sensation sixteen years in the making.  And they did it beautifully, expertly, unselfishly.  Japan found greatness in the most inspiring story in women's soccer since 1999 - maybe ever.

What is most impressive about Sawa's legacy is what she, and the generation she led, built.  Sawa was of course one of the most significant players on the WUSA Atlanta Beat and the WPS Washington Freedom - but she is a vastly influential figure in her home country, where she's won 11 championships in her consistent devotion to build the sport on a club level. 

Sawa's influence transcended the soccer field.  It is well worth re-reading Kyung Lah's CNN article on what she and the Nadeshiko meant to Japan after the Fukushima disaster - that team was a symbol of hope and triumph.  Even though Sawa and her teammates were paid vastly less than their underachieving male counterparts - there's no better figure than Homare Sawa to show that gender inequality in the modern game has become nonsensical.  Thanks to the greatness of players like Sawa, the women's game has grown from a curiosity to a passion. 

Congratulations and farewell, Homare Sawa - no one can make them forget you.