Japan set new benchmark for Asia with women’s World Cup triumph
It was case of “anything you can do, I can do better” for Japan’s women footballers as they defied the odds to lift the World Cup just six months after the country’s men had captured a record fourth Asian title.
When Saki Kumagai slotted home the winning penalty in a dramatic shootout victory over the United States in Frankfurt on Sunday, Japan completed an astonishing run that overshadowed any achievement by an Asian soccer team at any level.
“There is no happier president than a World Cup winner,” Japan Football Association (JFA) president Junji Ogura said after the side had rallied twice to force extra time and a penalty shootout, which they won 3-1.
“The players demonstrated the wonders of Japanese women.”
With their women crowned world champions and the “Blue Samurai” currently on top in Asia, envious eyes will be cast at Japan from their continental rivals to far beyond.
South Korea put Asian soccer firmly on the map with their remarkable run to the 2002 World Cup semi-finals as tournament co-hosts with Japan.
However, despite success at Asian club level, South Korea have flattered to deceive since, while the domestic K-League has been tainted by an embarrassing match-fixing scandal.
China, the world’s most populous country and second largest economy, has failed to make much of a dent in the game despite qualifying for their first World Cup in 2002.
Runners-up to Japan at the Asian Cup on home soil in 2004, China has lurched from one crisis to another since, with betting syndicates and poor leadership blamed for stunting the game’s growth.
However, ‘Captain Fantastic’ Homare Sawa’s superb extra-time equaliser in Sunday’s thrilling final also highlighted the rich vein of talent Japan possesses.
Bursting away from her marker to flick a corner past the goalkeeper with the outside of her foot, Homare’s strike was one Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi would be proud of.
“I want Sawa to be on the organising committee if Japan hosts the women’s World Cup,” gushed Ogura of the tournament’s most valuable player and Golden Boot winner.
Tadanari Lee’s stunning volley to give Japan’s men a 1-0 victory over Australia in the Asian Cup final in Doha in January displayed similar jaw-dropping technique and flair.
Sawa, who has scored 80 goals in 173 games for Japan, has appeared in five World Cups and is famous in her home country, appearing in Nike commercials among her many endorsements.
She has now shot to fame worldwide, leading by example as Japan’s women gave the public back home a welcome shot in the arm after the deadly earthquake and tsunami in March.
Nicknamed “Nadeshiko” after a frilly pink carnation symbolising the traditional ideal of the stoic Japanese woman, coach Norio Sasaki’s side captured the hearts of a nation.
Impressive as the men’s Asian Cup triumph was in the sweltering heat of Qatar, Japan had to overcome enormous odds at the women’s World Cup.
Despite shock wins over hosts and holders Germany and powerhouse Sweden in the previous two games, Japan had never beaten the Americans in 24 meetings before Sunday.
Giving away an average of seven centimetres to their powerful opponents, at crunch time it was the size of heart and depth of determination which mattered.
“We were outplayed really but it was a triumph for perseverance,” Sawa told reporters. “There was more pressure on them in the penalty shootout. There was no pressure on us.
“The Americans were so strong. They really are the best team in the world.”