Womens World Cup

Japan's run provides hope for a nation

Preview the World Cup final match between the US and Japan.
Preview the World Cup final match between the US and Japan.
SpecialtoFoxSoccer JENNA PEL
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Make no mistake about it.

The Japan women’s soccer team has every intention of beating the highly favored United States in the World Cup final on Sunday in Frankfurt, Germany.

USA-JAPAN
RECENT MEETINGS

 
To say the US has dominated recent games with Japan would be an understatement. Here are the last five meetings between the nations.
DATE RESULT
May 18, 2011 USA 2, Japan 0
May 14, 2011 USA 2, Japan 0
March 2, 2011 USA 2, Japan 1
August 18, 2008 USA 4, Japan 2
August 9, 2008 USA 1, Japan 0
 

But if the players of Nadeshiko Japan should lose to the US for a fourth consecutive time on Sunday, they will do so knowing they have already lightened the hearts of a nation still suffering the effects of a devastating earthquake and tsunami in March.

Yes, the exploits of Nadeshiko Japan — the team’s name is derived from a hardy flower believed to embody Japanese femininity — have allowed a country some relief from the distress of a natural catastrophe in which more than 15,000 Japanese were believed to have died and another 7,000 were reported missing. The earthquake and tsunami that devastated Japan’s northeastern seaboard on March 11 also destroyed or damaged more than 100,000 buildings and sent nuclear power plants into meltdown mode.

How important is the Japan women’s team to its homeland?

Many Japanese watched their compatriots’ 3-1 semifinal victory over Sweden — the match was aired by national broadcaster NHL at 3:45 a.m. local time Thursday — then were rewarded on their way to work with special editions of newspapers hastily published to commemorate the team’s effort, according to The Christian Science Monitor.

Though focused on winning the championship, Japan’s soccer players have not lost sight on what their efforts mean to those they’ve left behind.

“As a player, we cannot do very much for Japan, but at least we can try and play as hard as we can,” said Homare Sawa, Japan’s captain and candidate for the Golden Shoe award, given to the World Cup’s top goal scorer. (Sawa and Marta are tied for the lead with four goals apiece.)

They might not admit it, but the Japanese women were shaken by their country’s tragedy. They had compiled a 7-1-1 record before the natural disaster, then went winless in their four games that immediately followed. They have rebounded to a 4-3-2 record since the quake.

Coach Norio Sasaki acknowledged the continued rebuilding efforts back home have impacted his players.

JAPAN HISTORY
WORLD CUP FINISHES

 
Japan's run to the final is by far the team's best World Cup performance. Having qualified for each of the five previous tournaments, the Nadeshiko Japan had only gotten out of group once, losing in the 1995 quarterfinals.
YEAR FINISH
1991 Out at group stage (0-0-3, -12)
1995 Lost to USA in quarterfinals
1999 Out at group stage (0-1-2, -9)
2003 Out at group stage (1-0-2, +1)
2007 Out at group stage (1-1-1, +0)
 

“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.”

Of course, he also has used the tragedy as a motivational tool.

“When you’re in a tough spot, think of the disaster victims and give it your all,” Sasaki reportedly told his players before the semifinal against Sweden.

Japan defender Aya Sameshima probably didn’t need such a pep talk. She personally experienced the aftermath of the tragedy through her club team TEPCO Mareeze.

The team represented the operator of the Fukushima nuclear plant, where Sameshima and teammates worked part time. When the plant was forced to shut down because of the quake, the team was disbanded for the season and Sameshima and her teammates were forced to move from their training quarters, which was turned into an emergency home for crews working at the nuclear plant. With nowhere to go or train, Sameshima recently signed on with the Boston Breakers of Women’s Professional Soccer.

Sawa told the website espnW in May that “we try to show our attitude of ‘never give up,’ ” in hopes they can encourage “the people hit by the tsunami that they can survive if they can also never give up.”

The strategy certainly has worked for the Japanese women’s soccer team.

Their improbable appearance in the World Cup final has been among the biggest surprises in a competition that has had plenty of them.

And, thanks to an eye-catching brand of soccer and faultless defensive organization, Japan is responsible for perhaps the biggest upset in women’s soccer history — a 1-0 defeat of heavily favored Germany last weekend.

After the game, Sasaki told reporters that he had instructed his players to play with “more heart” and “more stability.” And they obviously responded, performing in a similarly swashbuckling manner in Wednesday’s triumph over Sweden.

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Women's World Cup 2011 Semifinals

Relive the action from the US and Japan victories - Wednesday's exciting Women's World Cup semifinals.

The first half was a battle of attrition as both teams battled to a 1-1 tie at the intermission. But Japan finally burst into life in the second half and took advantage of Sweden’s top-heavy formation with two goals that ensured victory.

Japan plays the kind of soccer purists can admire. An impetus has been placed on technical skill, team cohesion, intelligent defending, patient build-ups from the back, retention of possession, sleek passing, clever movement and a clinical presence in front of goal.

All of which has helped Japan rewrite a history that could not have predicted Japan’s run through this tournament. Heading into this summer’s event, Japan had played 16 previous World Cup matches and only won three of them. The team had advanced to the quarterfinals once before, in 1995, but lost 4-0 to the United States.

Which brings us back to Sunday’s championship game. The Japanese women have never beaten the US women, having gone 0-22-3. In these teams’ most recent meetings, the Japanese women have lost once in tournament play and two friendlies in World Cup prep in May.

But that was when these Japanese women were merely trying to qualify for the World Cup.

Now, they are there.

And they know they have the chance — if only briefly — to ease the pain and suffering of their country.

FOXSports.com wire services contributed to this report.

Jenna Pel is founder and editor of All White Kit, a site devoted to coverage of the women's game. She is also a contributor to the New York Times' Goal blog and ESPNW, as well as co-author of The Complete Guide to the 2011 FIFA Women's World Cup.

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