Anyone who has experienced the Oktoberfest in Munich will have long since realised that Germans know how to party, while spectators in Frankfurt on 17 July 2011 would have been equally impressed with the Japanese women's national team's celebrations upon being crowned world champions. The combination therefore, of a Japanese international playing in Germany and sealing promotion with her club is an intoxicating one - as Mana Iwabuchi has demonstrated.
At the beginning of the year the Japanese forward moved to Germany after signing for 1899 Hoffenheim. "The national team is very strong in Germany and the quality of the league is high too," Iwabuchi told FIFA.com in an exclusive interview. "On top of that, they play a different kind of football. I wanted to test myself with a new style and grow as a player. Another factor was that Hoffenheim made a lot of effort to sign me and were very keen to have me."
Memories of the FIFA Women's World Cup Germany 2011™ and the Women's Olympic Football Tournament in London last year influenced her decision to leave her homeland for Europe. At those competitions, Iwabuchi sensed that she was still some way short of counting among the world's elite players. Following her switch to Germany, she quickly realised just how big gulf separating the German and Japanese leagues is.
*Speed the key *"The biggest thing for me is the difference in speed," Iwabuchi said. "Not just in terms of running and passing, but also in switching from defence to attack once you've won the ball back and start going for the opponent's goal. It's faster than in Japan. I think the game in Japan is more focused on the team as a whole. However, in Germany the personal strengths of individual players have more influence on the game."
The differences may be due to the fact that women's football is not so widespread in Asia, with the same countries always dominating. "I'd like it to be as it is in Europe one day," said the 20-year-old, who won the adidas Golden Ball as the tournament's best player at the FIFA U-17 World Cup New Zealand 2008. "Here you have lots of countries taking part in qualifying and you have home and away games. We need to work hard to make sure the enthusiasm in Japan spills over into the rest of Asia."
While Iwabuchi believes that not a great deal changed for her on a personal level after that World Cup triumph, she has noticed a shift in her homeland: "Straight after we won the World Cup everyone was talking about women's football in Japan. Now two years have passed and when you compare it to how it was back then, the interest has waned a bit. I’d like the levels of enthusiasm to always be as high as they were after the World Cup.”
*Lofty targets *As ambitious as they come, Iwabuchi has her sights set on greatness. “There are still so many things I need to improve on,” she said. “That’s why I'm going to train as hard as possible in order to achieve my aims.” One of those objectives, alongside avoiding relegation with Hoffenheim, is to secure qualification for the 2015 Women's World Cup in Canada. While numerous fixtures have already been played in European zone qualifying, Iwabuchi and the *Nadeshiko *only begin their quest for a ticket to the finals at the AFC Asian Cup 2014 in May.
"In order to make it to Canada we have to win the Asian qualifying campaign," said the forward. "I'm going to give everything I can to contribute to that as a full member of the squad. I'm going to start by preparing myself as best I can so that I can play regularly in the national team in future."
Despite her youth, Iwabuchi is already considered one of Japan’s best players. It is not beyond the realms of possibilities for her to lift the World Cup trophy again on 5 July 2015 and take a step closer to realising another of her dreams: to be nominated for the FIFA Ballon d'Or.
"All of the players shortlisted to win the award are exceptional," she said. "Unfortunately I can't take part in the vote, but of course as a Japanese woman I hope that both my compatriots finish high up. One day I'd really like to be among the finalists too."