In what everyone is calling the greatest Women's World Cup Final in history and one of the biggest upsets in team sports, the long-shot Japanese women's soccer team defeated the highly-favored United States in penalty kicks to take home the world title in Frankfurt, Germany yesterday.
Japan, the little engine that could, overcame long odds to make it to the finals but used a steady passing game, tough defense and unyeilding tenacity to come from behind and defeat the stronger and bigger U.S. squad.
Even U.S. fans could not begrudge Japan of it's hard-earned win.
The Japanese were playing for a country devastated by an earthquake and tsunami which wiped out huge portions of northern Japan on March 11 and left over 23,000 people dead or missing. The victory brings optimism to a country still filled with heartbreak and destruction.
The drama was set even before the teams took the field.
Nobody gave Japan a chance to win-- not even a puncher's one.
Japan had never beaten the U.S. in 25 previous matches and lost three games against this same team earlier this spring. They were the second smallest team in the tournament and, because of the earthquake and tsunami, had limited time to practice together leading up to the World Cup.
The highly entertaining game had everything soccer fans want to see. For once the game lived up to the hype.
There was the David vs. Goliath angle-- literally-- and enough action and close calls to keep even the most cynical soccer fan on their feet.
After a scoreless first half, Japan was robbed of a high percentage shot after a referee wrongly called a Japanese break away off-sides early in the second period. The U.S. took advantage of the missed call and scored the first goal in the 69th minute after Megan Rapinoe lofted the ball to 22 year-old Alex Morgan. It seemed the U.S. had destiny in their hands. The shouts of U-S-A! U.S.A. began to fill the Frankfurt stadium and bars around America.
Japan accelerated their finesse game by bringing in extra scorers and, in the 81st minute, it paid off. Aya Miyana intercepted a lazy Alex Kreiger pass in the U.S. penalty area and looped the ball over U.S. goalie, Hope Solo's outstretched arms. Tie game with momentum on Japan's side.
The U.S. continue to take-- and miss-- shots at the Japanese goalie. On the day the Americans out-shot Japan 27-14, but had too many kicks hit the post or sail over the net.
At the end of regulation, the game was tied at 1-1 and both teams prepared for the 30-minute overtime session. Now, no 'Golden Goals' could save either team. It was thirty minutes of play.
As the Japanese team huddled before the extra period, their coach, Norio Sasaki, could be seen smiling while encouraging his players. They looked looser than the U.S. team.
That smile was wiped away in the 14th minute of overtime when Abby Wambach once again used a header to score a go-ahead goal. This was the third time in this World Cup, the towering Wambach's head put the U.S. into the lead. This time it looked like the team would take the 2-1 lead to a world title.
Wambach was now looking at endorsement deals from every shampoo, hat and hair dye company if the Americans could milk the clock for another sixteen minutes.
Amazingly, a minute later, Homare Sawa-- in her fifth World Cup for Japan-- made an awkward, off-balance shot past Solo to tie the game.
Now both teams were headed to the dreaded and nerve-wracking penalty kick phase.
The U.S. missed their first two penalty kicks and Japan led 2-1; leaving just Saki Kumagi's kick to seal the victory for Japan's first world title. Solo tried to psyche out the tiny Kumagi by flailing and stretching inside the goal. It didn't work. Japan wins 3-1 on penalty kicks.
It could be called the Miracle on Turf or Japan's Hope over America's Hope or whatever, but to the millions of Japanese, still reeling from the disaster, watching the victory in pre-dawn Japan, it was more than a soccer match.
It was pretty hard to root against Japan. Their first victory against the U.S. was more important than soccer itself. The inspiration the team brings back home will bring happiness to many who need something to cheer about and spur them on.
At the end of the game, the Japanese women unfurled the banner they have held up after all their wins leading to World Cup title game. It reads "To Our Friends Around the World- Thank You For Your Support."
Soccer should be thanking them.