Women's World Cup winner Nagasato Yuki signs landmark deal with men's club
The 33-year-old striker is set to become first female professional to play in Japanese men's league: "I wanted to send a message to the girls playing with boys"
Nagasato Yuki is no stranger to making history.
She is the first Asian to win both the FIFA Women's World Cup and UEFA Women's Champions League, and helped Japan win their first Olympic medal in women's football at London 2012 (At that time she was known as Ogimi before she re-assumed her maiden name in 2016 after her divorce).
But what Nagasato achieved on Thursday (10 September) could just be the most meaningful of her stellar career.
In her hometown of Atsugi, Kanagawa Prefecture, Nagasato announced a groundbreaking transfer to local men's club Hayabusa 11 from Chicago Red Stars of the National Women's Soccer League.
She would be the first female professional to play for a men's team in Japan.
"To be honest, I’m not sure what I can do against men but with the experience I have overseas and through good training, I want to give this everything I’ve got", Nagasato said during a press conference.
"I never thought I’d get this much attention. I'm really surprised. I’m very nervous right now. FIFA, UEFA have let the world know. For the people overseas, I think this may have more social significance than I ever thought".
A dream come true
Hayabusa 11 were only founded last year and are in the second division of the Kanagawa prefectural league, which is five tiers below the J.League in the Japanese football pyramid.
Nagasato will be on loan from the Red Stars until the end of December, and will be playing with her older brother Genki and former Japan men's international Nagai Yuichiro.
Nagasato said she was the one who approached Hayabusa 11 about the transfer after being limited to two appearances this season due to injury and with the coronavirus pandemic halting the NWSL.
The 33-year-old striker said competing against the men has been her lifelong ambition.
"It's hard to tell exactly until I train and play games with them, but I've always wanted to play on a men's team, in a men's league", she said.
"That has been the bar for me all long so I like to think I have an idea of what I can do at this level. I don't think I don't stand a chance here".
"I knew from about 10 years ago that she was serious about playing amongst men," added Genki, who flanked Yuki at the press conference.
"I knew it was her dream which is why as her brother, I wanted to support her on this decision".
Gender equality message
Well-traveled Nagasato has made career stops in Germany (Potsdam, Wolfsburg, Frankfurt), England (Chelsea), Australia (Brisbane Roar) and Chicago in the United States.
Nagasato said she has had an itch to give back to Atsugi after a decade overseas but says her move to the U.S. was crucial in deciding to return to Japan, namely being influenced by a certain Megan Rapinoe.
"From a year or two ago, I started to feel emotionally, physically different", said Nagasato, who has a reputation for generally staying in excellent shape." At the World Cup, Rapinoe spoke out on social issues like gender equality which was really inspiring to me.
"The things she said and did at the World Cup, it wasn’t just about winning. She always had something to say to society. I’ve always wanted to become a better footballer but I started to feel like I need to contribute to society.
"I’ve met her in person but she’s really nice and approachable. Watching her treat everyone the same despite being one of the top athletes in the world made me want to do what she’s doing.
"What I’m trying here might be a little different but I wanted to send a message to the kids, to the girls playing with boys right now, that it is possible to take a shot".
Tokyo not on radar - yet
With her return to Japanese football - and the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games on the horizon - it won't be long before the rumour mill begins churning out a potential national team reprisal for Nagasato, who is the fourth most capped Nadeshiko of all-time with 132.
But she flatly denied even thinking about the Games right now.
"This is all that's on my mind at the moment", said Nagasato, who will wear No. 17 - her old number while wearing Japan blue. "I haven't even thought about next year.
"Until I actually get through this experience, I won't know how I feel about my next move. My time here will determine what I do next".