Before the World Cup Final, Norio Sasaki, the outgoing coach of Japan’s Women’s soccer team, said he hoped the soccer Gods would help him overcome the American women. By all accounts, it seems his wish was granted.
After two overtime periods and regulation, the 2-2 tie was broken when Japan took the Penalty shootout 3-1 and left Commerzbank Arena in Frankfurt, Germany with their first ever World Cup.
For the U.S., it was heartbreak. After nearly missing the Cup all together, the team had persevered against France and Brazil, who outplayed them for large portions of each of those matches. Recollections of Mia Hamm and Brandi Chastain were abundant. Christie Rampone, who was fantastic this tournament, was the only member of that 1999 team still on the squad, but this would be her last World Cup appearance.
This time, it was Japan who persevered against the U.S. despite being outplayed in nearly every minute of the contest. It was Japan who had the invincible superstars with impeccable timing. It was Japan who earned it. Through guts, scrappiness, and absolute persistence, the Japanese found the respect of not just the Americans but any legitimate fan of athletics.
For fans of the United States, the game was 120 plus minutes of relentlessly brutal missed opportunities punctuated by two picture perfect finishes from Alex Morgan and Amy Wambach.
It started with Lauren Cheney, playing at her natural position of striker, who went down with an ankle injury in the first minute. On the play, the 23-year old Indiana native opted to shoot from the back line instead of cross, took the collision and missed the shot.
It was one of two golden chances she’d miss before her ankle injury forced her out of the second half.
Then it was Carli Lloyd who was off target from a wide open spot in the middle of the box. Next was the talented Megan Rapinoe striking the post.
Alas, we thought, Abby Wambach would finish the job. But fans’ jaws could only sit on the floor when her beautiful left-footed strike took an unfortunate hit off the crossbar.
And that was only the first half.
It took Alex Morgan, the youngest player on the U.S. squad (22) two great chances to finish with an amazing left-footed top-shelf strike on the far post that gave the U.S. a 1-0 lead. For 12 minutes, U.S. fans thought that would be the nail in the coffin, and then disaster struck.
During a scramble in front of the box, central defender Rachel Buehler attempted a clear when she kicked the ball directly into teammate Ali Krieger. It looked idiotic, impossible, and it ended in devastating fashion.
The ball bounced directly into the lap of Japan’s Aya Miyama, who with an easy touch netted the goal and tied the game, leaving the U.S. team in shock. Things we’re just heating up.
Amy Wambach, the U.S. team’s version of Reggie Miller, would tie the game in the 104th minute with a perfect header. Déjà Vu, we thought, but Japan had an answer.
Her name is Homare Sawa. She is the 32-year-old midfielder who was long considered Japan’s finest footballer.
On Sunday night, she was also appearing in what was likely her final World Cup game (after five appearances in the tournament). And in the 114th minute, after a perfect corner kick landed on the side of her right foot and found the back of the net, she became Japan’s new hero.
This was the moment in the game when I realized we were in trouble. Hope Solo, the U.S. goalie, had prefaced that corner kick by hitting the ground with what appeared to be a knee injury. The momentum was on Japan’s side, and the U.S. women who had dominated the game in its entirety suddenly looked as if their backs were on the walls.
My instincts were true. Japan’s destiny seemed certain, and after poor U.S. shooting and stellar goalie play, the Cup was theirs.
It took 25 tries, but the Japanese women finally conquered the U.S. team.
The most important part of this win for the Japanese was its timing. It was Japan who was a country in mourning after a spring of disaster. Now, we can hope that their winning ways can bring together a country which has seen too much death and sorrow in recent months. Perhaps Solo said it best.
"'I truly believed this was our tournament to win," Solo, the hero against Brazil said. "I felt that the entire time. At the same time I think there is something bigger pulling for Japan. They are the team of the tournament, and if there's any team that you're going to lose to, I'd put my hat off to them because they have so much class and they play with so much passion. They fought and they fought."