- - Monday, July 18, 2011

TOKYO — In one of the most dramatic victories in Japanese sports history, Japan won its first women’s World Cup on Sunday, upsetting the United States on penalty kicks after a 2-2 draw.

While 50,000 spectators packed a sold-out stadium in Frankfurt, Germany, fans crammed into sports bars in Tokyo and other cities throughout the night, and many across Japan got up at 3:45 a.m. to watch the historic match live on TV at home.

Though the victory won’t solve Japan’s problems, the courage and resilience of Japan’s team will inspire many who have been laden with bad news since the March 11 disasters.

“It shows the true bravery of Japanese women,” said Kumiko Fukushi, a musician and studio owner in Tokyo who watched the game at home. “Even when we are under intense pressure, in life or on the soccer field, we don’t panic. We just think about trying our best to reach our goal.”

Many in Japan said the gods of soccer were on their side, and some even prayed for victory at a shrine in Wakayama province dedicated to birds symbolized on the Japan Football Association’s official crests and uniforms.

The top-ranked Americans dominated play for most of the match, but Japan came from behind twice against the taller opponents, who had beaten Japan 26 times in a row.

Japan’s women scored two goals with the deft touch and creative wizardry around the net that Japan’s male strikers have often lacked in World Cup matches.

“It was amazing  and unbelievable,” said Akihiro Koh, a Saitama province engineer who has traveled around the world to watch Japan’s national soccer teams.

Mr. Koh noted that the Japanese women developed their toughness and technique by training together from early ages with male national team players.

“There aren’t enough young girls playing soccer at the national level, so they have to play with the boys,” he said. “The women grow up to really believe that they can beat other women and men as well. It doesn’t matter how tall they are.” 

He said the goals by Aya Miyama and Homare Sawa showed skill levels beyond most male players. Ms. Miyama tied the match 1-1 by punching home a loose ball with her left foot.

After U.S. striker Abby Wambach scored with only 6 minutes left, Ms. Sawa, Japan’s 32-year old captain, tied the game by taking a pass off a corner kick and flicking the ball through a jumble of players.

“It was one of the best goals I’ve ever seen,” Mr. Koh said.

Japanese players, facing a nuclear disaster and challenging economy back home, didn’t get discouraged in extra time when the referee sent off Azusa Iwashimizu with a red card for a questionable tackle just outside the penalty area.

Before the penalty kicks, coach Norio Sasaki set the tone for the team by smiling and reveling in the thrill of the moment.

The U.S. players tightened up and missed three kicks — one of them on a miraculous save by Japanese goalkeeper Ayumi Kaihori, who dove left and yet still managed to kick away a ball hit to her right.

The Japanese made three out of four attempts, with Saki Kumagai booting the winner.

In the post-match interview, Ms. Sawa, who joined the national team at age 14 and played in five World Cups, was ecstatic.

“It hasn’t sunk in yet, but we know this is a great victory. We are bringing the gold medal home to Japan,” she told Japanese TV networks NHK and Fuji TV broadcasting the game live.

Mr. Koh said the historic win will inspire a generation of Japanese schoolchildren who already love soccer more than baseball, volleyball or any other sport.

The Samurai Blue, whose teamwork and defending nearly led them to the quarterfinals at the men’s World Cup in South Africa last summer, will likely take note of how Japan’s women used quick passing and clever defenses to counter much taller opponents.

Given the sudden interest of women’s soccer in Japan, the nation now has a good chance at hosting the women’s World Cup in the future.

“I’m surprised we won,” said Coach Sasaki. “Our tiny girls really did it.”

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