Crisis-weary Japan lifted by World Cup victory

After months of tragedy following earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear fallout, Japan finally got some good news: a historic win against the US – on their 26th attempt.

Koji Sasahara/AP
Japanese fans celebrate in Tokyo's Shibuya district Monday morning, July 18, after Japan beat the United States in their final match at the Women’s Soccer World Cup Sunday, July 17 in Frankfurt, Germany.

Japan beat the US, taking the Women’s World Cup soccer championship in a penalty shoot-out Sunday night in Germany, a victory that is being savored back home where good news has been in short supply.

After coming from behind twice, Japan finally got a win against the US – on their 26th attempt. Japan beat the US on penalty kicks 3-1 after the final ended 2-2.

The match was full of the kind of open attacking football that has been conspicuous by its absence in recent men’s World Cup finals.

Japanese fans who woke up early, or stayed up late to watch the match, which kicked off at 3.45 a.m. local time, were rewarded with seeing the Japan women’s team become the first Asian side to win a world title at any level.

Monday was designated a national holiday in Japan, Marine day, which meant sports bars in Tokyo were still full of fans singing happily at 7 a.m.

“I can’t believe they’re the world champions, it was fantastic the way they never gave up,” says Risa Matsumoto, who watched the game at her local bar in Tokyo. “It makes me proud as a Japanese woman.”

The players dedicated their performances to the victims of the devastating March 11 earthquake and subsequent tsunami, and said they drew inspiration from the hardships faced in disaster-hit areas. Manager Norio Sasaki showed slides of the destruction to the team before last weekend’s victorious quarter-final against hosts and two-time champion Germany.

“It’s only a small thing compared to what happened in March, but it was good to have something to feel hopeful about – it was the first time since the disaster,” says Hitomi Mizune, who got up to watch the game at home with her young son.

“Seeing the TV news reports of the people in the disaster areas getting excited about the game made me realize that it really can have that kind of positive effect,” says Ms. Mizune.

Many in Japan are hoping the "feel-good factor" will translate into enough spending to help lift an economy struggling to recover from the March disasters and electricity shortages caused by the subsequent nuclear crisis. One report in the local media today estimated the victory could boost economic activity by 1 trillion yen, or $12.5 billion.

Never-say-die spirit

Despite appearing overpowered for long periods by the favored US women's team, Japan's team showed the never-say-die spirit they have come to be known for during the tournament.

The US looked set to become three-time champions, after Abby Wambach’s powerful header had put them into a 2-1 lead. Japan’s own captain marvel, Homare Sawa, came to her team’s rescue – as she has done so many times in an 18-year, 80-goal international career – by deftly steering a corner through a crowd of players into the US net.

Then the first three US players failed to convert their penalties, wrapping up the improbably victory for Japan.

At the final whistle, the contrast between the smiling faces of the Japan team and the downtrodden looks on their American counterparts, betrayed how the momentum had shifted in Japan’s favor for the penalty shootout. A new name has now been written into World Cup history.

“The team really looked liked they were enjoying themselves, the way they and the manager were smiling before the penalty shootout put a smile on my face too,” says Mizune.

[ Video is no longer available. ]

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.