Japan an unexpected but deserving champion
FRANKFURT, Germany -- Japan was not steamrolled. It was not overpowered. It was not overwhelmed. No, instead it is the 2011 Women's World Cup champion.
It was an utterly courageous effort by the Japanese team Sunday night to defeat the United States in penalty kicks 3-1 at FIFA Women's World Cup Stadium, just another from a team that's been a portrait of courage throughout this entire tournament.
Playing as an underdog, playing for its damaged country, playing gutty, technically beautiful soccer, Japan departs Germany as an unexpected but thoroughly deserving champion.
The list of takedowns goes like this: First, host Germany in the quarterfinals. Then, Sweden. Then, the United States in a memorable final in which Japan, the first Asian country to win a World Cup title, was twice down by a goal and fought its way back into the match with huge goals minutes before elimination.
The Japanese fought back against a team they had never, ever defeated in 25 games.
"Not one of the players gave up," Japanese coach Norio Sasaki said.
The second Japanese goal, which came in the 117th minute, tied the score 2-2 and forced the game into penalty kicks.
The late score -- off the foot of captain Homare Sawa, clearly rattled the Americans, who had been the offensive aggressors for most of the match, but just shaky enough on the defensive end to keep Japan hanging close.
Goalkeeper Ayumi Kaihori stopped a pair of U.S. attempts in penalty kicks to seal the historic victory, sending the Japanese players into a dead sprint onto the pitch in Frankfurt to celebrate.
As Sawa accepted the World Cup trophy and raised it above her head, the entire team jumped up in unison. It was a hard-earned celebration for the Nadeshiko -- which translates into a flower that represents the idealized Japanese woman -- after coming back against a team that seemed destined to win.
Japan was a little lucky but also made its own luck by continuing to go at the American team, even as the U.S. stayed out front on the scoreboard for much of the second half.
"Yes, the players were patient," Sasaki said. "They wanted to win this game, and I think it is because of that the Americans only scored two goals. Yes, we were lucky during the penalty shootout, but my soccer god made it possible for us to win versus the U.S."
Japan was poised as the game opened with a U.S. barrage, hanging tough until the players could settle in. They became more assertive, more in command with their possession game and more dangerous.
After the U.S. scored on a goal by Alex Morgan in the 69th minute, Aya Miyama punched in a goal on a ball that was deflected around by Rachel Buehler and Ali Krieger. Miyama was able to get enough of a foot on the loose ball to put it in the net past U.S. goalie Hope Solo.
After the U.S. took the lead again on an Abby Wambach header in extra time, five-time World Cup competitor Sawa tied the score with a tide-turning goal in the 117th minute, getting her foot on a strong cross at close range, the ball bouncing off Wambach into the net.
"They just kept coming at us, they fought," U.S. captain Christie Rampone said. "We tried to stay compact and in control, but you have to give them a lot of credit."
Then in penalty kicks, it was a heroic performance by Kaihori, who immediately put the U.S. at the disadvantage with a spectacular kick save of Shannon Boxx's attempt. Kaihori dived left and Boxx's ball went right, but Kaihori was able to catch it with her right foot and knock it away.
From there, Carli Lloyd missed high for the U.S. and Kaihori had another big save, a diving effort against Tobin Heath. Kaihori was named player of the match.
The U.S. team had never missed a penalty kick in a World Cup game. It missed three Sunday night.
Kaihori joked wryly that she got "support" in the penalty shootout.
"The Americans missed and that was the support I got from the Americans," Kaihori said with a smile. "In the penalty shootout, I believed in myself. I was very self-confident in that situation and I just wanted to save all those shots coming at me."
Even the U.S. players acknowledged Japan was the "sentimental favorite" in the tournament, playing for a devastated home nation following March's earthquake and tsunami. The Japanese team unfurled a banner after every match in the tournament thanking the world for its support.
On the day of the final, the banner came out before the game.
But sentimental favorite is different than World Cup champion.
Yet here Japan is holding a trophy because it turned sentiment into passion and resilience and put together one of the most impressive tournament runs in the history of women's soccer.