Powerhouse Germany ousted by gutsy Japan
WOLFSBURG, Germany -- The crowd of 26,067 at Wolfsburg witnessed the biggest upset in the history of the Women's World Cup.
But that is not what they came to see. They came for a celebration, not the devastation and disbelief on the faces of their team's players at the final whistle after 120 minutes of heart-wrenching play.
This was supposed to be another step in the march to a third straight World Cup title for Germany -- only this time on its home soil. This was supposed to be a tournament that lasted for another week, with the Germans taking their assumed place in the final.
But Japan substitute forward Karina Maruyama ended all of it when she took a beautiful feed from veteran Homare Sawa, barely beat German defender Simone Laudehr to the ball and slid it into the goal in the 108th minute of play to send Japan into the semifinals with a 1-0 extra-time victory.
Japan will make its first appearance in the semifinals against the winner of Sunday's match between Sweden and Australia.
By winning in unlikely and dramatic fashion Saturday night, Japan turned this tournament on its ear, disappointed thousands of German fans and made it a wide-open race for the championship.
"We are short little ladies, but I am very proud of my team," said Japanese coach Norio Sasaki.
For Germany, this game will play over and over in a litany of missed chances. So many balls in the box, free kicks, corners ... nothing to show for it now except for the severe sting from a historic loss.
The Germans played without starting midfielder Kim Kulig for almost the entire game after she left less than five minutes into the match with a serious knee injury, and yet they still dominated the offensive end of the field.
But coming up empty time after time was wearing even as the Germans kept pushing and the crowd kept exhorting them to score.
Germany, which had a 15-game unbeaten streak in this tournament dating to 1999, collected 18 shots on goal in the second half and extra time, but it was Japan's quickness and its ability to deflect and redirect the ball that made finding the back of the net increasingly frustrating. Germany's efforts to use its size on high balls went for naught, as well, as there were just too many misses.
Japan's defensive effort was nothing short of steely, led by goalkeeper Ayumi Kaihori, who had a handful of huge saves in the second half and extra time.
But even Sawa had to admit that this was not the ending she saw coming.
"Frankly, I'm surprised," Sawa said. "But at some point in time, my goal was to win against Germany. To play on this beautiful stage against this strong Germany team and to win, that is something I'm very pleased about."
After all, Japan had not beaten Germany in any of its previous eight matches. Even in defeat German coach Silvia Neid would not concede Japan was the better team.
"I'm sad. I'm sad that we are out of the tournament because I don't think that we are the worst of the two teams. But that's the way it goes in football if you don't score any goals," Neid said. "We could have played another two hours and not scored any goals. We weren't able to score a goal today in at least 15 dead-ball situations. That's usually our strength."
Germany outshot Japan 23-9 for the game and 18-4 after halftime, but Japan is in the semifinals for the first time because of perseverance and tenacity, while Germany is out because it couldn't overcome either for a score.
The Germans spent the rest of a late evening together in Wolfsburg before going their separate ways. Players such as Birgit Prinz, the tournament's all-time leading scorer, and Inka Grings likely closed their storied international careers on a sour note.
Neid said that losing Kulig early deflated her team and that Kulig may have a ruptured ACL.
"It was a decisive point, it was a shock for us after three minutes," Neid said. "I thought it was her head, but it was her knee. It wasn't a very good start for us, because she's a player who really conquers the ball and plays wonderful passes. Her injury didn't help us at all."