The Japanese women’s soccer team won the World Cup after defeating the United States on penalty kicks Sunday night, rallying from a pair of one-goal deficits to capture its first-ever world title.
Japan had come into the tournament as sentimental favorites, helping rally a nation that had been devastated by a March 11 earthquake and subsequent tsunami and nuclear disaster. For the United States, it was more a disappointment — especially considering that the team twice relinquished leads.
While the U.S. had the most chances during the run of play, the Japanese dominated the penalty-kick phase 3-1 to earn the win. The Americans dug themselves a hole by missing their first three kicks.
“We lost to a great team, we really did,” U.S. goalkeeper Hope Solo told ESPN, which broadcast the game. “I truly believe that something bigger was pulling for this team.”
Americans gathered in bars, living rooms and other places rode an emotional roller coaster, their hopes high on multiple occassions only to be dashed in the end.
Japanese residents were also glued to their televisions, despite the game starting around 4 a.m. local time. In one Tokyo eatery, for instances, scores adorned in the team’s colors burst out in joy once their team beat the U.S. squad for the first time in 26 tries.
The shoot-out was mandated only after Japanese midfielder Homare Sawa scored with a few minutes left in extra time, tying the score 2-2. Japan answered a U.S. goal — also in the overtime period — when U.S. forward Abby Wambach put her team ahead by heading home a pass from Alex Morgan into the back of the net.
There were many heroes for Japan. One of them was Aya Miyama, who tied up the score with 10 minutes left in regulation by finishing off a scramble in front of the net. Before then, Japan had its back against the wall after Morgan herself scored the game’s first goal.
This came after the Americans controlled much of the early action, but couldn’t capitalize.
In the first-half alone, a U.S. player hit a goal-post, and on another occasion, Wambach rattled the crossbar. Japan also had its own point-blank chance about 30 minutes into the game; that was saved by Solo, the American goalkeeper.
It was more of the same in the second half, with Morgan ringing a ball off the post from several feet away just three minutes in. Then, Japanese goalkeeper Ayumi Kaihori tapped a Wambach header just over the crossbar 15 minutes later.
The game — which began at 8:45 p.m. (2:45 p.m. ET) in Frankfurt, Germany — capped an eventful tournament that saw a number of favorites including Brazil, Sweden and the host nation of Germany fall by the wayside.
The Japanese shocked the host nation in the quarterfinals. In that same round, the U.S. team needed last-minute heroics to beat Brazil and advance.
Team USA had been hoping — and ultimately failed — to become the first squad to win the women’s World Cup three times, having also captured the title in 1991 and 1999.
Steve Sklar, one of tens of thousands of Americans who watched Sunday’s game, said the U.S. team succeeded in getting many of his countrymen excited about the sport.
“Anything that gets soccer played in the United States is great,” Sklar told CNN from a New York bar, minutes after the contest ended. “And the fact that so many watched this game is awesome.”
While the U.S. team played for bragging rights and to boost the sport’s profile in their home country, Japanese players were hoping to give their citizens something to smile about after this spring’s massive earthquake and tsunami.
“To be in the final is, to be honest, like a dream,” Japanese player Homare Sawa told FIFA before the game. “We know USA are a great and strong team, but they have weak points, too, and there’s always a chance to score.”
The Japanese players had won over their share of fans, with Solo of the U.S. team calling them “the sentimental favorites” for helping to lift the spirits of their devastated nation.
“They’re playing for something bigger and better than the game,” the American goalkeeper said in a conference call prior to the match. “When you are playing with so much heart, that’s hard to play against.”
The U.S. team, meanwhile, captured the hearts of Americans for its creativity, dazzling plays and free spirit. Their white-knuckle wins kept fans engrossed and revamped interest years after the team’s last win in 1999, before a packed house at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke by phone with the U.S. team Sunday before the game, wishing the players good luck and telling them that America is proud of how well they’ve done.
“I just got the highest hopes that this great team, which has shown such resilience, will be coming back and winning for the U.S.,” Clinton told reporters, adding that she plans to watch the game from Greece.
Her daughter Chelsea Clinton was among those attending Sunday’s game in Frankfurt, part of a delegation that included Jill Biden, wife of the U.S. vice president.
“This country needed someone to cheer for,” said Cat Whitehill, who played on the last two U.S. World Cup teams, after the game. “To see the support from so many different people, it’s really neat to see.”
The U.S. team was known for its energy, often evident in the locker room where the players were known to sing and dance. On the field, Swedish-born head coach Pia Sundhage said she trained them to play with verve and openness.
“I guess there’s a reason they hired me from a foreign country,” Sundhage said. “They wanted change. It was risky to make too big of a change because then (the team) would lose a lot of confidence.”
The team faced a Japanese squad that was faster and more tactical than most they’d faced, some American players said.
“They are the biggest surprise in the tournament,” U.S. defender Ali Krieger said of her opponents, prior to Sunday’s match.