- Associated Press - Thursday, July 14, 2011

FRANKFURT, GERMANY (AP) - Meticulous planning and execution are everything in Japanese soccer. So when the team falls behind, there is a system to rely on, a belief there is still a way to win.

Japan is in its first Women’s World Cup final, and its quick passing could pose a challenge for the favored United States on Sunday.

Coach Norio Sasaki has been planning for this moment since the 2008 Olympics.

“In Beijing, we finished fourth and, at the time, it was our intention,” Sasaki said. “This time we said, ‘Let’s go to the final.’”

Then March 11 arrived. The earthquake and tsunami left nearly 23,000 dead or missing.

TEPCO Mareeze, the club of national team defender Aya Sameshima, withdrew from the Japanese league for the season. She eventually signed as a free agent, half a world away, with the Boston Breakers in the United States.

The Japanese league was delayed by a month at a time when national team preparations were getting intense. But Sasaki knew his players’ fundamentals were strong, drilled into them by the years of the hard training for which he is known. He had no doubt the team would endure in the face of catastrophe.

His team did more than that _ it thrived.

In the quarterfinals, Japan played a two-time defending champion German team boosted by a sellout home crowd. Hours before the start, Sasaki had his players look at slides of the devastation from March. Aya Miyama said the images touched everyone.

Against great odds, Japan won 1-0, setting up a semifinal with Sweden. This time, there was no need for photographs and shock treatment. Now the challenge was tactical, with the small Japanese facing the big Swedes.

On their 21-player rosters, the Japanese have only one woman taller than 5-foot-7, while the Swedes have only five smaller than that height. Many thought the Swedes would exploit that advantage.

Japan won 3-1.

“We just paid a lot of attention and our coach told us to keep the ball low, not to play any high balls,” Miyama said. “That is what we did.”

Sasaki says the key is ball control, good passing, team spirit.

“Everyone has to be involved,” he said.

Japan, by far, has showcased the most discipline during the three-week tournament, and its dedication is never more evident than when the team is down. Sweden scored early, but Japan’s approach did not change. It had been facing such games for years.

“We stayed calm and we decided: We are just going to do what we practiced, and if we do that there will be a good result,” Miyama said.

Three goals eventually came, giving the fans back home something to cheer.

“Even little things, like a win, can give people courage and hope,” Sasaki said. “And when we play the final, we are not going to think about the end result. We are just going to do what we can.”

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