There is a question that almost every soccer coach answers after almost every game, whether or not he is asked it directly:
Did your team deserve to win?
It is, on one hand, a ridiculous question. But Japan's victory in penalty kicks after the Women's World Cup final against the US ended 2-2 is a reminder of why the question is so often top of mind after a soccer match – and particularly one of this magnitude.
On one hand, what Japan accomplished was historic in ways well beyond the obvious.
Coming back – twice – against an American team that is ranked No. 1 in the world and was playing arguably its best game of the tournament is simply not something that would ever have been conceivable in women’s soccer, perhaps even a month ago. But this Women’s World Cup has changed the game utterly, and likely irrevocably.
In soccer terms, the queen is dead. Japan has stormed the Bastille. Insert your revolutionary metaphor here.
And yet there is also no point in suggesting that Japan was the better team, because it was not. Yes, after the 30th minute, the Japanese game did improve, but the team was never truly equals with the US either in the quality of its possession or the danger it created going forward.
And what of those first 30 minutes? The American women left 100 yards of scorched earth behind their furiously churning heels. The US could have scored four and the scoreline would not have flattered them.
Far more than the three missed US penalty kicks or the last-minute Japanese heroics, the game was lost then, when it was not even a third over.
And that is the curious thing about soccer – the blessing to those who love it and the curse to those who do not.
A goal is a miraculous thing.
In the aftermath of the final, one must ask: How did the United States not score? How many posts must be hit, how many near-misses must happen, before eventually, surely, someone must score?
The American first half seemed a scientific test of that very idea.
The chances came from every conceivable player and angle. Carli Lloyd rampaging through the center of the park. Lauren Cheney teasing the Japanese back line with clever runs. Megan Rapinoe dictating play with the full range of her skill set – speed, passing, and two devastating feet.
What can be said of the Japanese is that they did not allow Abby Wambach’s head anywhere near the goal. For 104 minutes, they limited the best header of the ball – perhaps in men’s or women’s soccer – to a single half-chance in the middle of the 18-yard box, falling backward, with a defender virtually sharing her jersey.
She still almost scored.
But in that is perhaps a lesson for these Americans – and the rest of the soccer world. The sum total of the Japanese game plan was to neutralize Abby Wambach’s aerial threat. And until Alex Morgan entered in the second half – and in the 69th minute scored a goal from a chance more difficult than many her teammates had spurned earlier – that game plan was working by the only measure that mattered: the scoreline.
If that is an implicit rebuke of the US women not named Abby or Alex, it is also another historic achievement for Japan. Before the Women’s World Cup began, not many teams of Japan’s meager pedigree could have withstood an onslaught of such proportions.
Yes, the Americans should have scored, but even amid the storm, Japan never collapsed, never dissolved into a shambolic wreck, never huddled by the corner flag chewing their hair. They fought, and when the US let them off the hook, they got back to something approaching level terms for the final 90 minutes of regulation and extra time.
This, too, has no real precedent in the women’s game. An underdog holding its nerve when heaven and earth and Rapinoe were pelting it with shots and crosses that rained like brimstone.
There is, of course, a rightness in this that goes well beyond soccer – that the women of a nation that has been made to endure so much, themselves endured, and won.
If the first Japanese comeback was an American gift – Aya Miyama poking home in the 81st minute after some ruinous US defending – then the second was straight from the heart and soul of the country.
Just as America saw Wambach at last free herself from her full-time shadow, the outstanding Saki Kumagai, in the 104th minute, Japan saw its greatest player rise precisely when it needed her most.
Homare Sawa had been made a spectator for most of the game. Unable to break down an American midfield playing with the speed and tenacity of the furies, the Japanese were often forced to bypass Sawa completely, punting the ball down the field to escape the American swarm.
To see the Japanese, a team built on possessing and passing the ball, reduced to a game of kick-it-hard-and-hope, was perhaps the most impressive – though least heralded – American achievement of the day.
Then, in the 115th minute, Sawa drifted into a rare patch of open space at midfield. In two touches, she changed the game, and the history of women’s soccer.
The first touch was a pass that split the American defense, falling onto the shoetop of a streaking Yukari Kinga, who saw her chip cleared off the goal line.
Sawa’s second touch, a deft flick on the resulting corner kick, arrowed the ball into the American goal, setting up penalty kicks, which Japan won, 3-1.
For women’s soccer, it was the fulfillment of a remarkable tournament – the maturation of the game into something it had not been before.
For Japan, it was the hope of a nation distilled into 21 women who, for two weeks, provided instruction in how to accomplish something that no one thought possible.
And for the US, it was the sort of rough justice that perhaps only soccer can provide. For the first time in three games, the American women clearly outplayed their opponent, and for the first time in three games, they lost.