- Associated Press - Tuesday, July 12, 2011

FRANKFURT, GERMANY (AP) - Only hours before their quarterfinal match of the World Cup, captain Homare Sawa and the rest of the Japanese players were transfixed by slides of the devastation heaped on their country from the earthquake and tsunami.

That evening they went out and upset mighty Germany, the two-time defending champions playing at home. The Japanese players reached their first World Cup semifinal with a fighting spirit that belied their size in the face of the towering hosts.

“They touched us deep in our souls,” star Aya Miyama said of the pictures.

Sawa added: “As a player we cannot do very much for Japan, but at least we can try and play as hard as we can.”

Coach Norio Sasaki’s effort worked. The session gave the players “more stability and heart” for the match.

After the breakthrough victory on Saturday, there is no more need for such inspiration ahead of the semifinal against Sweden on Wednesday.

In sharp contrast, Sweden’s march through the tournament has been as carefree as the twirling, joyous team dance that accompanies every victory.

“We cannot play for the same reasons, obviously, as them,” Sweden captain Caroline Seger said.

That 1-0 victory over Germany, when Sawa set up Karina Maruyama for the decider deep in extra time, silenced the sellout crowd in Germany but brought joy back home and front-page headlines across the nation.

The banner headline that endears them to all in Germany reads: “To our friends around the world _ Thank you for your support.” The players form a solemn postgame procession and carry it around the stadium after each win.

It refers to the global outpouring of aid in the wake of the March 11 disaster that left nearly 23,000 dead or missing and caused a crisis at the Fukushima nuclear plant.

The memory of the tragedy has been a constant theme running through the team at the three-week tournament.

“The players know in their heart what has been going on,” Sasaki said. “The players were deeply impressed and the feeling connected to their heart.”

In Japan, the team’s rise at the World Cup and its stunning upset of Germany has brought relief from the daily pain. The country has been battered by dozens of strong aftershocks since the strongest quake in Japanese history.

Their success on the global stage has turned into a bigger hit than baseball or sumo wrestling, and the media dominance of a woman’s sport is a huge surprise in itself.

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