Football

How Japan Pulled Off One of the Greatest Victories in Sporting History

Still recovering from the devastating tsunami of 2011, the Japanese women's football team managed to beat firm-favourites, the USA, in the World Cup final.
June 19, 2019, 10:38am
The Japan team lifting the World Cup.
The Japan team lifting the 2011 World Cup. Photo: Kevin C. Cox - FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images

At 2PM on the 11th of March, 2011, the most-powerful earthquake in Japanese history hit the east coast of the country, causing massive waves to hit the mainland. The earthquake was so powerful that its effects were felt in Norway and Antarctica.

An estimated 16,000 people died, thousands more were injured or reported missing and over 120,000 buildings were destroyed. The tsunami waves caused a meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant and left millions of people without electricity or water. The devastating tragedy affected the entire Japanese population, including the women who were preparing to head to the World Cup in Germany just four months later.

Many in the team knew individuals who had passed away or been caught up in the disaster; players Aya Sameshima and Karina Maruyama worked at the plant and played for local club TEPCO Mareeze, which was sponsored by the plant's owners, Tokyo Electric Power Company. After the disaster, the club's training pitch was turned into a recovery centre and football was cast aside as a team of workers tried to stem the spread of radioactive materials in the area.

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Buddhist monk Sokan Obara prays for the earthquake and tsunami victims among the rubble in Iwate, Japan. Photo: The Asahi Shimbun via Getty Images.

With a country still in mourning, the squad had to embark on a trip to the other side of the world. Japan were entering the World Cup in Germany with a decent bit of experience, but a record that had never seen them advance beyond the quarter-finals. The favourites for that tournament were the unbearably talented USA team.

Japan didn't have an easy route to the final, either – scraping past New Zealand in their opening group match and losing to England in their second. But in the knockout stages, they began to hit their stride.

An incredible extra-time quarter-final win over Germany was followed by a convincing victory over Sweden. After sweeping past one of the favoured sides, Japan had to tackle the Americans in Frankfurt's finale as the underdogs.

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Photo: Friedemann Vogel/Getty Images.

The star-studded USA team dominated the first half but didn't manage to make a breakthrough until the 69th minute, when Alex Morgan emphatically finished a Megan Rapinoe long ball that cruised over the top of the back-peddling Japanese defence.

Despite the setback, Japan continued at pace, putting the Americans under pressure and forcing a poor pass and a failed clearance that led to an easy Miyama equaliser. It was 1-1 and the game was heading to extra time.

The US struck first in extra-time: Morgan turned provider and sent in a perfect cross from the left-hand side to Abby Wambach, who had space to head the ball into the back of the net. 2-1.

Japan weren't done. In the 117th minute, captain Homare Sawa lunged onto an in-swinging corner and guided the ball towards the goal. The USA were rattled by the Japanese resilience – their shell-shock consumed them, and as the game headed to penalties they couldn't recover; they failed to score any of their first three penalties – Boxx, Lloyd and a young Tobin Heath all missed.

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Japanese supporters celebrate the Japan team's win over Sweden at the FIFA Women's World Cup semi-final. Photo: Sankei via Getty Images

Miyama came up with the goods again, coolly slotting home Japan's first penalty. Nagasato kept things interesting when she missed, but Sakaguchi's narrow conversion cancelled out the USA's only successful penalty, which was scored by Wambach.

This meant Saki Kumagi had the chance to win it all for Japan. She had to endure the slow walk down to the penalty spot knowing that she had the power to offer a nation still reeling some respite – a moment to fixate on glory rather than tragedy.

It could only go one way. Kumagi popped it into the top left corner and delirium ensued. Japan became the first Asian team to win a men's or women's World Cup.

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The Japan team hold a banner after winning the FIFA Women's World Cup. Photo: Christof Koepsel/Getty Images

I asked my god-brother, Leo, who is half-Japanese, the impact it had on him. "I was so proud to see this team win on the biggest stage, especially after everything they as a team, and the country, had gone through," he told me. "It proved to the world that an Asian team can be number one, and it was a really emotional moment."

Japan's win wasn't just felt by the victorious country; even the Americans could sense something special had happened.

"I was heartbroken," Wambach said in an interview for the book The Making of the Women’s World Cup, "and it took me a long time to understand why those circumstances ended up the way they did. And the truth of the matter is that nobody knows. But Japan were meant to win that game."

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