JAPAN: fans savour World Cup victory

Fans and players rejoice after women’s team defeats the United States to claim football’s ultimate prize

By Christopher Johnson 18 July, 2011

“Stunning, amazing, unbelievable.” That’s how Japanese players and fans alike described Japan’s victory over the United States in the women’s World Cup soccer final on penalty kicks after a two-all tie.

It was one of the most dramatic victories in Japanese sports history, and it showed the world the resilience of Japan’s people, especially its women, after one of the worst natural disasters in history.

While 50,000 spectators packed a sold-out stadium in Frankfurt, Germany, fans crammed into sports bars in Tokyo all night, while many in homes across Japan rose at 3:45 a.m. to watch the historic match live on TV.

In downtown Tokyo, Japanese supporters chanting “Nippon, Nippon” shouted down Americans hollering “U.S.A, U.S.A.” Come the final whistle, fans poured onto the streets to celebrate Japan’s triumph.

“It was amazing and unbelievable,” said Akihiro Koh, a Saitama engineer who has traveled around the world to watch Japan’s national soccer teams. “It was one of the best matches ever in the history of the sport.”

Koh noted that Japanese women have developed their toughness and technique by training together from an early age with male national team players.

“There aren’t enough young girls playing soccer at the national level, so they have to play with the boys,” he said. “The women grow up to really believe that they can beat other women, and men as well. It doesn’t matter how tall they are.”

March 11 in mind

Naturally, the victory won’t solve Japan’s problems overnight but the courage and resilience of Japan’s team will inspire many who have been flooded with bad news since the March 11 disasters.

Many Japanese — including head coach Norio Sasaki and U.S. goalie Hope Solo — believed the gods of soccer were on Japan’s side. Some Japanese even prayed for victory at a shrine in Wakayama Prefecture dedicated to the birds represented on the Japan Football Association’s official crests and uniforms.

Japan came from behind twice against the taller Americans, who had beaten Japan in 22 out of 25 previous meetings.

In the post-match interview Japan’s 32-year old captain, Homare Sawa, who joined the national team at age 14 and played in five World Cups, was ecstatic.

“It hasn’t sunk in yet but we know this is a great victory — we are bringing the gold medal home to Japan,” she told Japanese TV networks NHK and Fuji TV, which were broadcasting the game live.

Japan stunned the sports world by beating host nation Germany in the quarters, and then Sweden in the semi-finals.

The team then unfurled a huge banner referring to global concern about Japan after the March 11 disasters. “To our Friends Around the World Thank You for Your Support,” said the banner.

Courage and hope

After beating Sweden, coach Sasaki said the team’s success was very good for Japan. “We are still recovering from the disaster. There were so many victims. Even little things, like a win, can give people courage and hope.”

Future perfect

After hoisting the World Cup trophy in a shower of golden confetti, the Nadeshiko will now join Japan’s pantheon of heroes from other sports, especially women’s volleyball, tennis, golf, running and snowboarding.

The historic win will likely inspire a young generation of Japanese school kids who already love soccer more than baseball, volleyball or any other sport.

The “Samurai Blue” men’s team, whose teamwork and defending nearly led them to the quarterfinals at the men’s World Cup in South Africa last summer, will surely take note of how Japan’s women used quick passing and clever defenses to counter much taller opponents.

Given the sudden interest in women’s soccer in Japan, the nation now has a good chance at hosting the female version of the World Cup in the near future.

But for now, and the next four years, Japanese women can hold their heads high, as the champions of the soccer world.

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