Prior to the 2011 FIFA Women’s World Cup, Japan had never beaten Germany, they never beat the United States, once lost 8-0 to Sweden in the first World Cup, and here they are as champions of the world.
In an amazing final in Frankfurt, Germany, Japan upset the USA 3-1 on penalty kicks after an extraordinary 2-2 draw in which they were dominated in large parts of the match. For a nation still reeling from the recent earthquakes, tsunamis, and radiation leaks, this is the greatest sports story of the year if not one of the greatest in history.
This was a game that raised women’s soccer to a level it has never reached before and it was a match for the ages. It is only fitting that Japan beat the USA the way the USA won their last World Cup via the penalty shootout. Much like the USA they ended up losing their final group stage match and took the hardest road possible and they achieved the impossible. They survived the German onslaught and knocked the two-time defending champions out in the quarterfinals. Sweden jumped on them early and they found themselves a goal down within 10 minutes, and yet they dominated the game and won 3-1. TWICE they were behind against the #1 team in the world in the final and twice they got the equalizing goal to force extra time and penalties respectively. And to finish this storybook run, they beat the Americans in the shootout, the clinching goal scored by their 20-year-old defender Saki Kumagai. With one kick of the ball, Kumagai sent a grieving nation into joy and euphoria.
As much as we have lauded the USA’s “never say die” attitude thanks to late goals against Brazil and France, Japan have proven to be just as big a story and they really never did wilt under pressure in the tournament. Perhaps this was the ideal final. After all, Japan were 3rd out of 3 teams to quality out of Asia, and the US needed a play-off with Italy and were the last team to quality for Germany 2011. In the end, Japan kept their composure and proved all of the doubters wrong and are deserved champions.
Please don’t take away anything from the USA, either. They had a great tournament but in the end their central defense liabilities and their inability to put away their early chances caught up with them. There’s no shame in 2nd place even though it had to end this way. The future is bright and Alex Morgan provides a small glimpse into what you can expect in 2015. Who knows? Maybe Abby Wambach, who came up with all of the crucial goals in the knockout round, will have one more shot at the ultimate in Canada at age 35.
Congratulations to Japan for providing an uplifting moment for a still-recovering country, as well as being the most inspirational side in the 2011 FIFA Women’s World Cup.
I’ll leave you with the extra time goals and the winning penalty kick.
2-1 USA (Wambach)
Japan win on penalties 3-1 (Kumagai)