Maika Hamano: Chelsea & Japan's Lionel Messi-inspired teen star set to shine at the 2023 Women's World Cup

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Maika Hamano Japan 2023
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In the last year, the forward has played an U20 World Cup final, made her senior international debut and signed for the Women's Super League champions

Last summer, Maika Hamano helped Japan reach the Under-20 Women’s World Cup final, picking up the Golden Ball and the Silver Boot in Costa Rica for her eye-catching exploits. In the 11 months since, she’s made her senior international debut, completed a move to English champions Chelsea and is set to represent her country at this summer’s Women’s World Cup. It’s been a whirlwind for the 19-year-old.

But none of these achievements will have come as a surprise to her. After all, Hamano is ambitious. She is very grounded, but she dreams big.

In an interview with FIFA during the U20 World Cup, the young forward was asked to assess her own performances so far - bearing in mind she would go on to be named the tournament's best player. "I’m not sure,” she replied. “Two of my goals here have come from penalties, so I’ve not scored enough decisive goals from open play. If I’d scored another against France, we could have avoided the penalty shootout, so there’s still room to improve.”

But, in the same interview, she didn’t mince her words when she was asked about the personal goals she held for once the tournament was over. “First of all, I want to break into Japan’s senior team as soon as possible,” she said. “And long-term, I want to be the best player in the world.”

To reach heights like that, you need a good mix of ambition, humility and talent. Hamano has that – and she is certainly ready to work to get to where she wants to be.

So, what makes this teenager so highly-rated? Let GOAL introduce you to one of the brightest young talents at the 2023 Women’s World Cup…

  1. Where it began

    Where it began

    Hamano was inspired to start playing football by her brothers, one older and one younger. “I often went to watch my older brother play,” she tells GOAL. “I liked his style of play, the way he dribbled with flexibility and that he could spot the space and pass the ball where I wouldn't think - that's what I like.

    “My younger brother was like my older brother, he was very good at dribbling and I had a sense of fear that I couldn't beat him,” she laughs.

    Hamano would go on to join Cerezo Osaka Sakai, the women's team local to where she was born and raised. It was there that she made her breakthrough into the senior game, starting all but one of the team's games in the 2020 Nadeshiko League, aged just 16.

    “I learned a lot from all managers, coaches, team-mates, everyone,” she recalls of her time with the team. “On the pitch, I learned things like to focus on the goal first and foremost. Off the field, I learned that you can't just get better at football. The importance of dreams and goals and the mental aspect of the game really trained me a lot.”

    The young forward would switch clubs in 2021, joining INAC Kobe Leonessa, with whom she would help set on their way to winning the newly-formed WE League before announcing her decision to leave Japan midway through the season.

  2. The big break

    The big break

    Hamano had shown her potential within Japan's youth teams for many years before the 2022 U20 Women's World Cup - but it was at that tournament that she really announced herself to a wider audience.

    The teenager shone in Costa Rica, helping Japan to reach the final. As well as picking up a runners-up medal, she was named the tournament's best player, winning the Golden Ball award, and also claimed the Silver Boot after finding the net four times in six games.

    These performances played a big role in what would follow. It was just a few weeks later that Hamano achieved her aim of debuting for the senior national team and, in December, she revealed that she would leave Japan to move to Europe. This was with the intention of improving her chances of getting into the Nadeshiko’s 2023 Women’s World Cup squad, she reveals…

  3. How it’s going
    Chelsea FC

    How it’s going

    And it worked. Hamano was snapped up by Chelsea in the January window and immediately loaned out to Hammarby. She’s shown excellent form for the Swedish club, which she’ll hope to take into this summer’s World Cup after being selected for her first major tournament.

    “I think they asked around about what would be a good club in Europe to place Maika for a season to prepare her for England and, somehow, our name came up and they reached out to us,” Johan Lager, Hammarby’s sporting director, tells GOAL. “When we took a look at her, there was no hesitation. She's a great player.

    “I felt comfortable that the club could probably do a good job [helping her to settle]. We took that decision and then started to work. We got her in touch with some Japanese families that the club knows in Stockholm, so sometimes they come and translate, and sometimes she just meets them for lunch or something and speaks Japanese with them and maybe asks questions about Stockholm and life here.

    “But she understands some English and is learning every day. She's a really happy person, trying to adapt, and the rest of the players have really brought her to their heart.”

  4. Biggest strengths
    Johan Gustafsson

    Biggest strengths

    Hammarby are a team that love to play good football and, because of that, Lager describes Hamano as “perfect” for them because of how technically good she is. That is the stand out strength of this talented young forward, there is no doubt.

    “She's quick over the first metres,” he adds. “She's good with both feet. She has good game intelligence and good awareness of the game. That suits us perfectly. That's what we're looking for.

    “She's really good at finding the free spaces between the parts of the other team and we really need that to happen because against a lot of teams, we are going to have the ball and they are going to defend and they are going to try to counter-attack.”

    Lager also notes how good Hamano’s passing into the final third is, which is another key element of her game. She plays like a second striker rather than as a target No.9 or one that runs in behind, occupying pockets of space and picking out clever passes for her team-mates as she does so.

    Add her strong work rate on top of it all and there are plenty of reasons to be excited about Hamano's future.

  5. Room for improvement

    Room for improvement

    Like any teenage talent, there are still ways that the 19-year-old can improve, with every area of her game still having the potential to be developed and refined over time.

    With her small frame and because she has come from the Japanese league, which is more technical than physical, it’s no surprise that she can still get stronger – especially if she is to thrive in England’s Women’s Super League.

    Her finishing is good but can get even better, too. But that is sure to come over time and with more experience, with Hamano having gained a lot valuable ones during the past year.

  6. The next… Pernille Harder?
    Getty Images

    The next… Pernille Harder?

    Despite coming from nations with entirely different footballing styles and traits, Hamano has a similar profile to a player she will sadly not get to share a pitch with at Chelsea – Pernille Harder.

    The Dane, who recently left the Blues to join Bayern Munich, is one of those forwards that doesn’t really fit into a box. She’s not a striker or a midfielder, she’s something in between. She’s a player that picks up free spaces and sets up team-mates, while also having an eye for goal. That is what Hamano does best, too.

    Unsurprisingly, some have even drawn comparisons to another Chelsea player, in Fran Kirby. She, too, has a free role at Chelsea and, in that sense, perhaps the London club is the perfect place for Hamano. If she can develop and nail down a role in the first team, that is the sort of role that she would best thrive in, and Chelsea under Emma Hayes are one of few to give players that kind of freedom on the pitch in their systems.

    Given how she is as a player, it’s also not surprising to hear that Lionel Messi is Hamano’s idol. On the men’s side, he is the prime example of a player that doesn’t fit in a box and floats where the game takes him. It’s clear that Hamano has picked up a few things from watching the seven-time Ballon d'Or winner.

  7. What comes next?
    Chelsea FC

    What comes next?

    It’s a big year for Hamano, beginning with her first senior major tournament. The 2023 Women’s World Cup will be a great experience for her as she looks to take the next steps in her career, exposing herself to new opponents and challenges at the highest level.

    Once the tournament ends, she will likely return to Sweden to complete her loan spell at Hammarby, which is certainly going well so far. The teenager has scored seven goals in her first 17 matches in the Damallsvenskan, which is a strong league.

    The season will end in November and, from there, it’ll be about trying to make her mark at Chelsea. Whether she can do that so soon or whether another loan spell will be needed, only time will tell.

    “The loan process is one that we should embrace, especially when the development of the league and the top teams in the league has just grown exponentially,” Chelsea boss Hayes said earlier this year, talking about Hamano.

    “She’s clever. She's a special player, but she needs time physically to develop. Coming from INAC to Chelsea is too big a jump. Will she be back in the summer? I don't know. We'll see how she copes with Sweden first. But I know that we've got a bright prospect for the future.”

    Additional reporting by Chihiro Sasaki-Burns