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ON TOP OF THE WORLD: Japan wins first Women's World Cup title

Japan has won the 2011 FIFA Women’s World Cup. That’s a statement that few, if any, could have thought of uttering three weeks ago. But after a 2-2 draw through extra time, Japan won 3-1 on penalty kicks. From perennial underachievers to world champions, these Japanese players have overcome more than just hardship on the field.

With their country struck by tragedy earlier in the year, Japan marched on and played for their people. Soccer can be a funny thing when put into perspective. After so many lives were lost in Japan due to the chain of events that included an earthquake (with aftershocks), a tsunami and a nuclear power plant meltdown, soccer seems like it should irrelevant to these Japan players.

But instead, soccer served as an escape from the trauma. Japan’s success at the tournament quickly began to lift the spirits of the collective nation. The hope delivered to the country of Japan with this win is enormous.

And the progress made for women’s soccer? Astronomical.

Japan’s victory in this final – particularly the way it happened, with the team twice coming back from a one goal deficit – embodies the theme of this Women’s World Cup: Women’s soccer has made serious progress.

No longer can Brazil, Germany and the United States be pre-written into the semifinal stage. Of those three (the top three ranked teams in the world) only the United States made it past the quarterfinals. With France, Japan and Sweden joining the Americans in the last four, there truly were some unexpected runs made in this tournament.

Not enough can be said about the spirit of Japan and the fight (which is an ironic word to use for such mild-tempered, optimistic team that won the FIFA Fair Play Award). Japan twice came back from being a goal down. That ironically American never say die attitude is what kept Japan in this match, along with some mistakes by the Americans.

What a story it would have been if that 69th minute goal by Alex Morgan – the 22-year-old American soccer poster child – had held up as the game-winner.  Surely, there more than a few Americans celebrating victory early, but Aya Miyama changed that in the 80th minute after miscommunication between U.S. defenders Rachel Buehler and Ali Krieger.

And then, in extra time, who else but Abby Wambach, American hero, could deliver the game-winner? Her 104th minute goal looked to be the winner. What a storybook ending that would have been to have Wambach, media darling, deliver the game-winning goal in extra time. At that point, whoever had not previously written off Japan certainly had their championship headlines written around another Wambach miracle.

Not on Homare Sawa’s watch.

The Japanese captain and Golden Ball and Golden Boot winner has been the heart and soul of Japan this entire tournament and she saved her team in the 117th minute with a great flick off the corner kick to bring this game to penalty kicks.

From there, Shannon Boxx and Tobin Heath had their PK’s saved and Carli Lloyd skied hers over the crossbar to deliver agonizing defeat to the United States.

Truthfully, the Americans outplayed Japan for large stretches, particularly in the first half when the U.S. opened the match with a flurry of chances that went begging. Against Brazil (second minute) and France (eighth minute), the U.S. was able to finish those opportunities.

Chance after chance went begging for Wambach and Lauren Cheney in the opening 30 minutes, including in the 28th minute when Wambach smacked a left-footed rocket off the crossbar from 25 yards out.

Still the United States marched on, but allowed Japan to stay in this game. The 0-0 score at halftime was certainly more encouraging to a Japan team that was surprisingly not only out-played in the first half but also lacking the quality possession that defined it throughout the tournament.

Japan settled into the game around that 30 minute mark and put up a much stronger fight in the second half and extra time.  The U.S. looked good – good enough to win, even, but the couple of mistakes the Americans made combined with a slew of missed chances throughout the match proved costly.

These were two teams of destiny on collision courses in the final. Beyond the obvious pressure to win for their country, both of these teams carried off-field burdens with them throughout the tournament, although the severity of the two varied greatly.

For the United States, there was and still is a constant feeling that the survival of the national team in the Women’s World Cup very much reflected the health of WPS. If the United States could keep winning in heart-stopping fashion, more Americans could fall in love with women’s soccer and ultimately, WPS. That was always the hope, anyway.

After the penalty kick win against Brazil in which Wambach’s 122nd minute goal “saved the USA’s life” (as ESPN play-by-play man Ian Darke called it) caught the attention of the nation, the U.S. found a way to be a French team that out-possessed the U.S. and did enough to rightfully feel it should be playing in the final.

That momentum captured the interest of the entire United States – celebrities, athletes, John Does – just about everyone. With the whole country watching, these U.S. players knew the (supposed) implications a world championship could have on the sport in the United States .

As important as that cause sounds, it really does not stack up to the importance of Japan’s story. Either way, Sunday’s winner would have made for a great story. For the sport as a whole and for the spirits of the Japanese people, the Nadeshiko’s championship is an incredible story. Americans won’t like to hear that, especially after this U.S. team captured the hearts of millions, but this was a fitting ending to a Women’s World Cup that featured so many upsets and surprises.

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