- Associated Press - Monday, July 18, 2011

TOKYO (AP) - If ever there was one, this was a victory to be savored.

After a year that will go down in history as one of Japan’s most difficult, a period scarred by the horrors of a deadly earthquake and tsunami and the world’s worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl, the women’s World Cup finally brought the nation something it desperately needed.

Heroes. And smiles.

Offering a potent symbol that, despite the odds and the hardships, there is hope, Japan’s triumphant women’s football team returned home Tuesday with the World Cup trophy.

Thousands of joyous, flag-waving fans turned out to greet the team as they arrived home, and two fire trucks shot out celebratory arches of water over the team’s aircraft as it approached the terminal at Tokyo’s Narita Airport.

Goalkeeper Ayumi Kaihori was the first to come through the terminal. The rest of the team, wearing their gold medals, followed as cameras flashed and fans shouted “Omedeto Gozaimasu”_ congratulations.

Before boarding the flight from Germany, team captain Homare Sawa said: “I have to dedicate this win to the people who suffered the disaster” four months ago.

On March 11, more than 20,000 people were left dead or missing by a massive earthquake and tsunami that devastated much of the country’s northeast coast and touched off the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl in 1986, a crisis that still dominates the daily news.

The calamity has given Japan nothing but grief.

It has thrown the nation’s economic recovery into question, forced tens of thousands of people to live in temporary shelters, made ghost towns of radiation-tainted villages that may never be habitated again.

Then, seemingly out of nowhere, came Sawa _ who has represented Japan for 18 years _ and her teammates.

As they progressed through the tournament, Japan watched with guarded dreams, not wanting to get its hopes up too high so soon after the terrible disaster. Even as the team made the final, the buildup was cautious _ this was the United States, after all, a two-time World Cup champion. No Asian team had ever won the cup.

But Japan, which went in at No. 4 in the rankings, just would not give up.

Down once, then twice, they came back. In the penalty shootout following a 2-2 draw, goalkeeper Ayumi Kaihori seemed unable to fail _ though she missed with her hands, she blocked a key shot away with her right shin.

When the whistle blew, Japan realized it could _ finally _ start cheering.

And cheer it has.

After the shootout victory, which came just before dawn on Monday Japan time, chanting fans spilled into the streets. Police kept a small group of revelers from wandering into traffic in Shibuya, a neighborhood known for its youth pop culture.

Japan’s biggest newspapers printed special editions. Scenes from the game have replayed constantly on television.

Prime Minister Naoto Kan hailed the victory the “greatest gift” to the nation.

“(The team) gave courage for everyone,” Kan said in the statement carried by Kyodo news agency. Kan noted a banner the team carried before the final: “To our Friends Around the World _ Thank You for Your Support.”

“As the prime minister, and as one Japanese citizen, I express my heartfelt gratitude,” Kan said before greeting the team personally on Tuesday.

The women’s team goes by the name “Nadeshiko,” a pink mountain flower that symbolizes beauty and strength.

Several members of the national squad were directly impacted by the disaster _ the power utility that runs the crippled nuclear plant sponsored a professional team. At least one of the World Cup team players worked at the plant itself before the disaster.

Defender Azusa Iwashimizu, who was given in a red card and ejected for a tackle at the end of overtime, held up a flag with a handwritten message to “Everyone in Tohoku” during the post-victory celebration.

In it, Iwashimizu said “I have never forgotten you” and promised to take her medal to Tohoku _ the devastated northeast _ and meet people there. She also thanked the region for cheering for the team.

“This is a chance to forget the nuclear disaster and everything else, to just to unite and celebrate,” said 22-year-old Toru Komatsu.

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