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Kozue Ando never stops learning

At 36, Japanese player Kozue Ando has huge experience in women's football. After having won the most prestigious trophies, she could have ended her career, but she still loves the game so much that she has no intention to retire. Good news for her club Urawa Red Diamonds and women's football in general.

Kozue Ando with her club Urawa Red Diamonds

Scott McIntyre
From Japan

"Football has given me so much: it’s given me the ability to strive to keep improving and think how I can be more positive, it’s given me the chance to visit other countries. To have new experiences and even though I don’t know when my time will come I know that one day I must finish my playing career, but for now I don’t want to look that far ahead."

At 36, Kozue Ando is a rarity in the world of women’s football – still as in love with the game as she was when she first started playing as a three-year-old. She’s also still a key contributor for her club side where she’s more than twice the age of several of her teammates, at a point in their lives where most women have long since finished their playing days.

On the evening that mycujoo visited the 2011 World Cup winner it was raining heavily on the outskirts of Tokyo where Ando plays for Urawa Reds, currently sitting fourth in the Nadeshiko League.

Without a car the walk from the nearest station takes a good half an hour, and even to go from the training pitch to the clubhouse where the team showers and changes it was a brisk ten-minute journey on foot across roads that had turned from dirt to mud.

As the rain continued to tumble down you wondered why anyone would want to endure the conditions, let alone a 36-year-old who is the sole professional player at her club, and entrusted with all the responsibilities that entails. The answer is a simple one: she just can’t shake her love for the game.

"I simply love playing the game and on the pitch or at training it’s where I feel at home. I still have a desire to keep improving and I know I can get better in every aspect of the game – if I compare myself to a star like Messi, for example, I realise that I’m not at that level and need to keep improving and for the fans I want to show even better performances. I might not play until 50 like Kazuyoshi Miura (the former men’s star is still a professional in the Japanese second tier) but I still want to keep challenging myself year by year."

Against the odds

Having first taken up the game when she could barely walk, Ando has seen a vast change in the way that women’s football is perceived in Japan. "I started playing when I was in pre-school, but at that time there was no concept of women’s football, so I simply had to play with the boys. Of course, at that age you don't understand it’s a problem, but as I grew older I started to realise and if you told people you played football they didn’t really understand, because it wasn’t considered the thing that girls did but after 2011 everything changed."

2011 was the year that Japan, against the odds, became World Cup winners as they defeated the might of the United States in the final, with Ando playing every single one of Japan's matches, but four years later as the Nadeshiko started their title defence the forward suffered a tragic blow that would’ve ended most careers.

In the opening match against Switzerland, Ando was brought down in the box to earn Japan a penalty but in doing so she broke her ankle – it was to be the last time that she played for her country.

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"In 2011 we had this wave of momentum and we knew that we could create history and hopefully change the path of women’s football in Japan so it was such a fantastic experience, of course for me things were very different in 2015. This is one of the things though that football teaches you, in that you have to overcome adversity and with the support of so many people I was determined not to have my career ended like that, and I did everything I could to get back onto the pitch. Looking back now, if I didn’t break my bone and we had won the title then perhaps I might not be playing any longer so I’m grateful for the lessons I learned in that moment."

What Ando – and many others – are not so pleased about is the disparity that still exists between the men’s and women’s game in both Japan and elsewhere.

"You can see there’s a clear difference for sure – when the men’s team travel to matches they go in business class and have their own chef, whereas the women always travel in economy and eat in the hotel restaurant – even at major tournaments so of course that makes me angry. Of course the money is completely different and in my team I’m the only professional player, and that’s the case at most others in Japan too, so we are hopeful that if we can keep improving our game then that gap can close in the future."

From those days as a small girl when playing football was frowned upon to the heights of a World Cup title and then back to the lows of a painful injury, the one constant has been that football is a part of Ando's soul. She’s gone through the loneliness of travelling to play in Germany by herself, from her father becoming a coach to support her ambition as a child, and now to being the elder figure in a sport that’s known for its youth and all of this to create a better environment for those who come in the future.

"When I was small there were hardly any other girls playing, and of course things have improved in those thirty years but there’s still so much to be done. In primary school I had a dream and I realised that at just 16 (the age when she made her Japan debut), but I know support for women’s football can waver. The game of football though has taught me so much and I’m so grateful for that and I’m still learning every day."