Don't let Maika Hamano's World Cup debut catch you by surprise

The 19-year-old Japanese is one of the brightest young footballers in the world. And she knows it. It's time to make plans to watch the Nadeshiko.

We all like Lionel Messi, right? Like, he’s a pretty good footballer. Maybe, the “best” men’s player ever. Seems a solid bloke too.

But, you see, Maika Hamano is a true Messi-head. A student of the G.O.A.T. She sees her own game within his game. She studies it in order to emulate it.

“He is my idol and I want to play like him,” Hamano said about Messi, aged 15, in an interview with in 2019 before the U17 World Cup. “He often catches his opponents off guard and leaves them surprised. And he defies both the quality of his opponents and the pressure to achieve this during a high-tempo game.”

This is not necessarily surprising for a young footballer who was born in 2004, and would’ve spent the 2010s glued to her computer (tablet or phone) in Osaka watching the Argentine’s matches and ‘Best Of’ Youtube compilations over and over again.

Hamano, who plays the same position and is just 5 centimetres shorter than Messi, also wants the same notoriety.

That is, in her words: “I want to be the best player in the world1.”

Look, what I’m trying to say here is that you shouldn’t be like a defender trying to defend Hamano or Messi even. Don’t get startled. Surprised. Or shaken. Brush up on your knowledge of the wunderkind. And witness her World Cup debut.

Maika Hamano smiles during Japan training | Courtesy of JFA

So, what do I need to know about Maika Hamano?

The 19-year-old Japanese is one of the hottest prospects in world football.

In 2018, Hamano made her senior professional debut with her local club Cerezo Osaka Sakai Ladies at the age of 14. Then, in 2021, she signed for INAC Kobe Leonessa and immediately won the league title in Japan’s top division, the WE League. It was the club’s first league title since 2013.

It is while her star is rising in the domestic Japanese game, that at the same time Hamano becomes a recurring award winner within the international youth tournament circuit.

At the 2019 U16 Asian Championship, in Thailand, a 15-year-old Hamano scores five goals in five games, is named player of the tournament, and Japan lifts the trophy.

Continental kudos became planetary plaudits when Hamano lights up the 2022 U20 World Cup in Costa Rica. Although Japan were eventually well beaten 3-1 by Spain in the final, the girl from Osaka scored four goals and notched one assist and is again awarded the Golden Ball for player of the tournament.

Maika Hamano holding her Golden Ball (Player of the Tournament) trophy in 2019 | Courtesy of FIFA

In the semi-final, against Brazil, Hamano has her defining moment of the competition.

With the match level at 1-1 heading into the 84th minute, a dinked pass plops beyond the last remaining South American centre back. The ball bobbles on the grass just inside the penalty box. A race is on to get there first.

Hamano out sprints the field, and has a beat, roughly 1.5 seconds, to choose her shot. The opposing goalkeeper, Gabi Barbieri, charges, and the milliseconds tick down. The Japan forward opts to stab the ball with the outside of her right boot. Which produces a rainbow lob over the oncoming shot-stopper, under the crossbar, and into the back of the net.

To emphasize, Hamano has very little time to process the position of the ball, her body shape in relation to it, the optimum angle to shoot on goal, or just how rapidly Barbieri is approaching. All the action - the speed of thought - happens in under two seconds. It’s a gorgeous finish worthy of a semi-final victory.

In the Autumn of 2022, Hamano makes her (sort of) long-awaited senior debut for the Japanese national team. In a 2-0 win over Nigeria, played in Kobe, the forward is a second-half substitute and comes on to replace Mina Tanaka, who had already scored both goals for the Nadeshiko.

That rise to senior international football and those mesmeric performances in Costa Rica unsurprisingly make plenty of headlines. Just 137 days after Japan finish second at the U20 World Cup Hamano signs a four-and-a-half-year contract with Chelsea FC.

“I know we have a bright prospect for the future,” Chelsea manager Emma Hayes said on signing Hamano in January 2023. “‘She’s clever, a special player, but she needs time physically to develop. Coming from INAC to Chelsea is too big a jump.”

In Hayes’ mind, the best way to acclimate from Japanese to European football was with an immediate loan spell from Chelsea to Hammerby IF in Sweden.

Life in Stockholm starts with a bang. Hamano scores back-to-back braces in her third and fourth-ever appereances for Hammerby. In particular, it is the second brace, in a 3-1 win over a then unbeaten Linköping, that truly showcases the Japanese’s ability to drop a bit deeper and exist in the half-spaces as well as finish chances. The outstanding 84-minute display sees Hamano connect with her teammates all over the pitch.

So far in the 2023 season, Hamano has featured in every single match for Hammerby. She’s scored seven goals in 17 appearances (14 starts). An average of a goal every 173 minutes; or just better than one every two games.

In June 2023, Hamano scores the third goal in a confident 3-0 win over BK Hacken in the Swedish Cup Final. Hoards of Hammerby fans descended on the Tele2 Arena, bringing with them flags, flares and a ferocious chorus of support.

“It was the first time since I was born that my eyes were so full of green and white. A trophy won with all my best mates,” Hamano posted on Instagram, underneath a photo of the celebrations.

Maika Hamano (23) playing for Japan against the USA | Courtesy of the JFA

A week later, the 19-year-old is named in Japan’s squad for the 2023 World Cup. One of her life goals completed. But, still more wait to be checked off her ambitious list.

Hamano arrives in New Zealand with four senior appearances for Japan, all of those coming off the bench. A total of 97 minutes of play for the Nadeshiko so far.

It’s unlikely head coach Futoshi Ikeda will opt to start Hamano, but you never know. When he has turned to the Hammerby loanee, it has been in a more advanced role. Leading the line as a forward who is willing to press and receive the ball in the final third.

This is an adjustment from the more inverted role Hamano has thrived in recently in Sweden. But arguably anywhere in the front four positions is home for the roaming Hamano.

See it to believe it

So, one of the brightest young footballers in the world is set to play in her first-ever World Cup and you can have the privilege of sitting on your sofa (or perhaps even being in the stadium in Hamilton, New Zealand) to witness the bloody thing.

It took long enough, but I for one am thrilled that the Japan Football Association announced today that it had reached an agreement with domestic broadcaster NHK to end a blackout that would’ve seen this summer’s World Cup go un-televised.

Kozo Tashima, president of the JFA, said the players were "a big motivation” for getting the broadcast deal done.

"It will be a chance for people who don't get much of a chance to watch women's football to watch some top-class games and feel the beauty of the Japan team," he told local media in Japan on Thursday. Cheers, Kozo.

You have to be there in whatever capacity that is. Ready to watch that moment.

Hamano’s first World Cup appearance.

Hamano’s first World Cup goal.

Hamano’s first World Cup trophy li…

…okay we’re getting carried away now, but the point is don’t miss a chance to witness history. Don’t let the Hamano’s arrival on the global stage catch you by surprise.