The greatest triumph in the history of the Japanese women’s national team — and maybe the greatest in the history of sports in Japan — occurred on July 17, 2011, when Nadeshiko Japan won the World Cup.
Even though, technically, the victory over the U.S. women wasn’t a win (see ‘The greatest not-a-win in Japan’s history — Part I‘), it was most certainly a crushing defeat for the United States.
Here’s how it came about.
The Americans made it to the final after defeating Brazil a quarterfinal match that was one of the most incredible World Cup games ever.
Abby Wambach, in the memorable words of Ian Darke, “saved the United States’ life” when she scored on a header in the 122nd minute to tie the game at 2-2. (Last year, Wambach’s goal was voted the best in the history of the Women’s World Cup.)
Megan Rapinoe, who deserves as much credit for the play as Wambach, recalled the moment in 2014 for The Players’ Tribune.
Japan earned its spot in the title game by upsetting Germany — the host team and the defending World Cup champion — in extra time the quarterfinals.
Japan then came from behind to beat Sweden 3-1 in the semis.
The betting money was that the Americans would brush Japan aside and capture their first World Cup since 1999.
The U.S. team was laden with stars.
It had one of the world’s best strikers in Wambach (who would finish the tournament with four goals, tied for second with Marta of Brazil and two behind Golden Boot winner Homare Sawa of Japan).
It had, arguably, the world’s best keeper in Hope Solo (who gave up just five goals in the first five games of the World Cup and was voted the tournament’s best goalkeeper).
It had one of the world’s rising young stars in Alex Morgan, and a half-dozen midfielders — Rapinoe, Heather O’Reilly, Tobin Heath, Shannon Boxx, Carli Lloyd, and Lauren Cheney — each of whom would have been a starter for almost any other team on the planet.
The United States would have four players voted to the 21-member World Cup All-Star team: Solo, Boxx, Cheney, and Wambach. No country would have more.
Japan, unquestionably, was also talented — it was the only other team to place four players on the All-Star squad. And the team had a precise, disciplined, efficient style.
But this was Japan’s first appearance in a World Cup final, and many people wondered if the team would find the huge stage a bit daunting — particularly given the way the Americans barreled into the title game (their third since the Women’s World Cup was established in 1991) with that spectacular finish against Brazil.
Japan, however, had one potent source of motivation that no other World Cup participant could match. The Japanese women believed — were convinced — that they were playing for a nation longing for a reason to celebrate. Just four months earlier, a massive earthquake and resulting tsunami had wrought unimaginable devastation in northeastern Japan, killing more than 15,800 people, displacing more than 230,000, and triggering a meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant (which remains off line to this day). By the time of the World Cup, the country had barely begun its long recovery.
In the title match, the Americans started strong. They failed to capitalize on several opportunities, and they easily could have been up by two goals at halftime.
But they weren’t. Neither side scored until Morgan put one in in the 69th minute to give the United States a 1-0 lead.
But 12 minutes later, Ayay Miyama took advantage of an awful clearances by Rachel Buehler and Krieger, pounced on a loose ball in front of the Americans’ net, and nailed the equalizer. (It’s at the 3:05 mark in the video below.)
It was 1-1 when regulation time expired.
Fourteen minutes into extra time, Wambach again gave the United States a lead, scoring with a strong header off a cross from Morgan (3:53 in the video).
It looked as if the United States would win its first World Cup since 1999. Surely, the mighty Americans wouldn’t give up two leads in a championship game.
Except they did.
In the 117th minute — with Team USA just three minutes and stoppage time away from hoisting the World Cup — Sawa, Japan’s brilliant captain, scored to once again equalize (4:24 in the video).
(Sawa would later be selected as the 2011 Women’s World Player of the Year, the first and only recipient since the award’s creation in 2001 who was not from the United States, Germany or Brazil.)
So, with the teams in a 2-2 draw, the championship came down to a shootout.
And the Americans, who were flawless in their shootout against Brazil just one week earlier, simply fell apart.
Boxx shot first. She almost slipped the ball into the lower right corner, but Japan’s keeper, Ayumi Kaihori, made a diving save with her foot.
Miyama, who had scored to tie the game at 1-1, made her PK.
Lloyd was next. She struck the ball with power but got under it, and watched aghast as her shot soared over the crossbar and into the stands.
Solo stopped the second Japanese shot. So despite missing their first two PKs, the Americans were still very much alive, trailing 1-0.
Then Heath hit a weak, poorly placed ball that Kaihori easily deflected.
Mizuho Sakaguchi made her shot to give Japan a 2-0 lead.
Wambach answered with a goal, but it was too little too late.
One more ball in the net would seal things for Japan. Saki Kumagai’s game-winner was perfectly placed, just beyond Solo’s diving stretch.
Here’s a recorded-off-the-TV video of the shootout. The quality is crappy.
In a way, that’s fitting. For Team USA, it was a crappy night.
Earlier: The greatest not-a-win in Japan’s history — Part I