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Magical Moments: Japan’s 2011 FIFA Women’s World Cup glory

Saturday, July 4, 2020

Kuala Lumpur: When it comes to global triumphs, few have been more emotive than Japan’s thrilling defeat of the United States of America in the final of the 2011 FIFA Women’s World Cup.

While Saki Kumagai’s winning penalty in a tense shootout sparked scenes of incredible joy in Frankfurt, those celebrating were just as quick to reflect on the thousands of lives lost just over three months earlier when a deadly earthquake and tsunami rocked the north-eastern coast of Japan.

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Played out against a backdrop of such pain and despair, Japan’s successful campaign had proved to be one of triumph over adversity, one that restored a semblance of pride – one that brought a degree of happiness in the very darkest of times.

“As a national team and the representatives of Japan we felt it was our responsibility at a time when Japan was visited by such a disaster to do our best to cheer up the country and encourage the people through our football at least,” then head coach Norio Sasaki would later reflect.

“At the moment of victory, all the players were gathered around our goalkeeper. I thought how proud and happy the people back home would be during a period when Japan was having a bad time.”

With their country still in a deep state of shock, Sasaki would show his players footage of the disaster’s aftermath before every game they played, images that he hoped would inspire the Nadeshiko to World Cup glory for the first time in the nation’s history. It certainly worked.

Japan began their title bid with a 2-1 win over New Zealand in their opening fixture on June 27. Homare Sawa then bagged a hat-trick in a comfortable 4-0 defeat of Mexico as Sasaki’s charges – despite losing 2-0 to England – went through to the quarter-finals as Group B runners-up.

Japan’s hopes gained yet more momentum in the last eight, this time Karina Maruyama scoring a superbly crafted extra-time goal to secure her side a hard-fought 1-0 victory against host nation and two-time champions Germany.

Behind to Josefine Öqvist’s 10th minute effort against semi-final opponents Sweden, Japan rallied magnificently as captain Homare Sawa’s fourth goal of the tournament and a brace from Nahomi Kawasumi – which included a wonderous long-range strike – sent the jubilant East Asians through.

Karina Maruyama on Japan's 2011 #FIFAWWC glory, scoring against hosts Germany in QFs & more

— FIFA Women's World Cup (@FIFAWWC) May 8, 2016

And so to the final where Japan were set to face a USA team which, thanks to their impressive successes in 1991 and 1999, already knew what it took to claim a World Cup crown.

It was to be a tense affair. After chances had come and gone for both sides, Alex Morgan opened the scoring for the Americans courtesy of an angled 69th minute drive.

To their credit, Japan simply refused to crumble and they duly drew level on 81 minutes when Aya Miyama made the most of a USA defensive lapse to score and send the game to extra-time.

Further drama was to unfold in the additional 30 minutes.

10 #FIFAWWC goals.
Today we introduce Queen Sawa's goal for @jfa_nadeshiko 🇯🇵 against @USWNT 🇺🇸 in the 2011 final.
Is this the #GreatestGoal?

— FIFA Women's World Cup (@FIFAWWC) April 29, 2019

The impressive Abby Wamback headed home from close-range to put the USA ahead for a second time, only for Japan to find yet another late equaliser thanks to Sawa’s exquisite flick from an inswinging Miyama corner with three minutes left. Penalties were now required to separate the two giants of the women’s game.

With the tension reaching almost unbearable levels, Japan were on target with two of their first three penalties while the Americans, who had edged past Brazil from the spot in the last four, missed all three. In a flash, the Nadeshiko were in the driving seat.

Scorer of the winning penalty in the 2011 #FIFAWWC Final shoot-out 🤩

Happy birthday, Saki Kumagai 🇯🇵@jfa_nadeshiko | #FIFAWWC

— FIFA Women's World Cup (@FIFAWWC) October 17, 2019

Wambach scored to give her side a glimmer of hope, but it was to matter little in the end as Kumagai kept her nerve to consummately beat goalkeeper Hope Solo and win the FIFA Women’s World Cup for Japan.

“I truly believe that something bigger was pulling for (Japan),” Solo remarked to reporters after the match. She may well have had a point.

Photos: FIFA via Getty Images

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