Germany has fallen. Japan has pulled off the greatest upset in the history of the Women’s World Cup and all of women’s soccer with a 1-0 extra time victory over Germany in Saturday’s quarterfinal.
There is no hyperbole there, either. Germany, the two-time defending Women’s World Cup champion, had the expectations of an entire world on its collective shoulders. As the host nation, this was supposed to be another year of glory for Germany, which was expected by most to dominate en route to a third-straight Women’s World Cup title.
Karina Maruyama changed all of that with a goal in the 108th minute.
Japan played with incredible composure throughout the match and deserved to beat a German side that truthfully failed to live up to expectations throughout the tournament. Germany started with a complacent first 45 minutes against Canada in the opener on June 26 and followed that up with a gritty but unconvincing 1-0 win over Nigeria in which Africa’s best team showed no fear against the host nation.
Germany looked best in its last group game outing against France, a 4-2 win, but it quickly became clear that this squad was neither invincible nor untouchable.
Japan proved that on Saturday, delivering an upset of monumental proportions that sees the team earn its first-ever Women’s World Cup win over a European opponent and advance to the semifinals for the first time ever.
Prior to the tournament, Japan’s captain, Homare Sawa, told me, “We will play with the aim to win the medal and to end the tournament with a better result compared to the Beijing Olympics” (Read more of that and many more interviews in The Equalizer and All White Kit Present The Complete Guide to the 2011 FIFA Women’s World Cup).
Japan finished fourth in Beijing, which is the worst the team could now finish in this Women’s World Cup. It’s an incredible accomplishment, particularly for a team whose country has been through so many traumas this year due to natural disasters.
From the opening whistle on Saturday, Japan played like a team that had nothing to lose. Cool, calm and collective is certainly an accurate way to describe Sawa and company. The defense was solid, anchored by goalkeeper Ayumi Kaihori. Twice her defenders cleared the ball off the line for her, but Kaihori was particularly spectacular in extra time.
As expected, Japan’s midfield was incredible. Sawa and Aya Miyama continued to show their chemistry and leadership, which was evident in the build-up to Maruyama’s goal.
Very few people believed Japan could win this game, but the underdogs never really looked like they wouldn’t. In fact, they actually controlled most of the play against a rattled Germany team. For what was supposed to be a golden age of German soccer celebrating a homecoming in 2011, Saturday’s loss leaves the bitter questions asking what went wrong.
And if Sweden beats Australia in Sunday’s quarterfinal, Germany won’t even be able to answer those questions at the 2012 London Olympics. France and Sweden would represent Europe at the Olympics and not world No. 2 Germany.
With France defeating England on penalties on Saturday, it is no longer a stretch to confirm what many thought during the group stage: France and Japan have played the best soccer of the tournament thus far.
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