FRANKFURT, Germany, July 17, 2011 (AFP) - Japan lifted the women's World Cup with a dramatic win over the USA on Sunday, delivering a boost to the morale of a country still reeling from the deadly March 11 earthquake and tsunami.
Goalkeeper Ayumi Kaihori made two saves as the final was settled by a penalty shoot-out before defender Saki Kumagai converted the spot-kick to give Japan their first World Cup title.
|Japan's goalkeeper Kaihori makes a save during the final match. AFP|
Under captain Homare Sawa, Japan won the hearts of fans with impressive displays just four months after the national disaster.
Many neutral fans in football-crazy Germany have supported the Japanese team as they progressed through the rounds.
|Overall view of the stadium after celebrations after the final match Japan vs USA on July 17, 2011 in Frankfurt am Main, western Germany. Japan won 3-1 in a penalty shoot-out. AFP|
The massive earthquake -- registering 8.9 on the richter scale -- and resulting tsunami devastated the northeast coast of Japan, killing thousands and sparking the crisis at the Fukushima nuclear power plant.
Referring to the terror attacks of September 11 2001, Frankfurt business teacher Frank Forster summed up the feelings of many when he said: "After 9/11 we were all a little American; since Fukushima we are all a little Japanese."
While none of the Japan squad were directly caught up in the disaster, the Japanese women's football league was heavily effected.
Worst hit of all was the TEPCP Mareeze club, based near Fukushima, which was forced to suspend playing activity and withdraw from the L-League, Japan's top women's league, for the entire season.
The players were forced to train elsewhere, but left-back Aya Sameshima, who played in Sunday's final, was taken on by US team Boston Breakers.
The start of the season was delayed by a month to help conserve power, while the men's professional J-League was put on hold for six weeks.
The women's league was harder hit as the majority of players are amateurs who fit training and playing around their work or studies.
With morale low across the country, the players found it difficult to return to football, let alone think about the women's World Cup.
"Early on, I felt that it might not be the right moment to play football and that I should have something else to do," said Japan defender Azusa Iwashimizu.
"But after a while, when the team activities had stopped and I was training alone, it made me realise just how much I love to play football."
With many of the 'Nadeshiko' are based in Japan, their World Cup preparations were badly affected.
When the USA recorded back-to-back 2-0 wins over Japan during friendlies in March, coach Norio Sasaki admitted his side were not as well prepared as their American rivals.
But Japan matured and developed in Germany.
Group stage wins over New Zealand and Mexico were followed by a 2-0 defeat to England before the Nadeshiko pulled off the giant-killing of the tournament to beat Germany in the quarter-finals, then Sweden in the last four.
And Sunday's dramatic penalty shoot-out victory over the United States completed the fairytale as Japan beat the USA for the first time at the 26th attempt.