By Mark Meadows
LONDON, Jan 10 (Reuters) - Former world player of the year Homare Sawa, a sporting idol at home in Japan, wants more "superstars" in women's soccer to help the game grow globally and build on the success of the London Olympics.
While Lionel Messi is recognised everywhere, even the very best women footballers are little known in large parts of the world.
United States forward Abby Wambach, named alongside men's winner Messi as 2012's best players by FIFA on Monday, is the closest women's soccer has to a celebrity having taken on the mantle from compatriot Mia Hamm but Sawa is not content.
"It is very important to have a kind of role model or superstar; for example in the United States Wambach is the superstar," Sawa told Reuters on Thursday at a briefing for Tokyo's 2020 Olympic bid, of which she is an ambassador.
"So if we can have more superstars in women's football it can inspire kids and continue into future generations."
Basketball's popularity rocketed in China after Yao Ming appeared on the scene to become one of the country's best known athletes.
Cycling was a popular pastime in Britain but media interest in road competition was low until Mark Cavendish and Tour de France winner Bradley Wiggins took the nation by storm.
Big names could offer a similar boost for women's football in soccer-mad countries such as Britain and Italy where the female game is marginalised and top league clashes attract only hundreds of fans, if that.
To become a big name, though, you need a big showing in a World Cup or Olympics.
"From the players' perspective, the most important thing is to have very good performances and results in World Cups and Olympic Games," said Sawa, who inspired Japan to World Cup glory in 2011 when she also won world player of the year.
A silver medal at the London Games - her fourth Olympics - made Sawa even more famous back home and increased the popularity of Japan's women's "Nadeshiko" team, named after a frilly pink carnation.
The London final against the U.S. last August had a crowd of 80,203 at Wembley, the largest to watch a women's Olympic match and a record for a women's match in Europe.
Sawa retired from internationals after the Olympics but was non-committal when asked if she might be tempted to play in 2020 if Tokyo wins the right to host the Games at the International Olympic Committee's (IOC) meeting in Buenos Aires on Sept. 7.
Madrid and Istanbul are also bidding.
Given that Sawa is 34, a role as a coach might be more likely in seven years' time but she does know her future will involve promoting women's soccer in some way.
"I don't really know what will happen in the future, I can't say at the moment," she said.
"What I can do is tell the media that there is interest in female football." (Editing by Clare Fallon)