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Wednesday, July 13, 2011
For Japan, an emotional victory over Sweden

By Joanne C. Gerstner

FRANKFURT, Germany -- Three years ago, Japanese coach Norio Sasaki saw his team settle for fourth place.

It was the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics, and Japan advanced for the first time to the semifinals of the tournament. He had hoped it would fight to reach the gold-medal game.

Instead, his team landed in the bronze-medal game, lost emotional steam and was soundly defeated by Germany 2-0. It was a bitter loss, and Sasaki told his team to learn a powerful lesson from the moment: Never settle for anything less than trying to win the title.

Sasaki's words changed the mindset of this team, and it has shown in this FIFA Women's World Cup. The Nadeshiko advanced to their first final by defeating Sweden 3-1 in Wednesday's semifinal in Frankfurt.

Japan stays in Frankfurt, taking on the United States for the World Cup in Sunday's final. Sweden will play France for third place in Sinsheim on Saturday.

"In Beijing we finished fourth … and this time, we said, 'Let's go for the final,' to ourselves in the run-up to this World Cup," Sasaki said through a translator. "I am very proud, as you can see. Our players have learned a lot, and we scored a very good result. In Japan, it is now early in the morning; nevertheless, the Japanese viewers gave us strength and courage. Everybody wanted to give them strength and courage, to the viewers back home, and we will do the same thing in the finals."

The victory was emotional and poignant, as the Japanese players have dedicated their performance to lifting the spirits of their nation in the wake of the March 11 tsunami and earthquake.

The win was not totally unexpected, as the Japanese have not lost to Sweden since 1996.

Japanese captain Homare Sawa was all smiles after the game, relishing in her team's accomplishment.

"It is unthinkable that we are in the final," said Sawa, who scored the match's second goal in the 60th minute to put Japan in the lead. "We have great joy in this. Great joy indeed."

The atmosphere among the crowd of 45,434 was a bit subdued at times, bundled up as they were against temperatures in the high 50s and a daylong downpour. The roof was closed on the stadium, protecting the fans and players from the rain, but the damp chill was more reminiscent of a late fall college football game in the Midwest.

The Swedes had a last-minute development that affected their alignment and team chemistry.

Captain and star midfielder Caroline Seger was announced as part of the pregame lineup but did not take the field. She injured her right calf at an unknown point in the days before the game.

Defender Charlotte Rohlin took over the captain's duties, and midfielder Marie Hammarstrom assumed Seger's spot in the lineup.

"For a couple of days, we thought she could play today, but when it was 25 minutes to go, she told us, 'I really don't know if I can make it,'" Swedish coach Thomas Dennerby said. "Five minutes later, she told us, 'I can't play; it hurts too much,' and of course, that had an impact on the team.

"That is the thing can happen with your team and in football. You have to handle that as a team, and we didn't today.''

Seger did not speak to reporters after the game.

Sweden started well, despite the change of game plan and key personnel.

Japan lacked its customary intensity early, allowing a taller Swedish side to dominate the ball. The aggressiveness paid off, as forward Josefine Oqvist intercepted an errant pass from Sawa at midfield. Oqvist took off down the right sideline, eluding the Japanese defenders.

She finished the run with a blast into the left corner of the Japanese net, putting Sweden up 1-0 at the 10-minute mark.

The Japanese went into another gear after the goal and started to play more effectively. Their crisp passing returned, and by contrast, Sweden's level dipped. The Japanese section of the crowd also came to life, banging on drums and chanting to urge the Nadeshiko on.

The preciseness stung Sweden in the 19th minute, when midfielder Aya Miyama placed a perfect cross into the box for Nahomi Kawasumi. She redirected the ball, with a perfect flick of the instep of her right foot, past Swedish goalie Hedvig Lindahl.

Kawasumi was a surprise starter, as Japan had kept its lineup consistent for the four games leading up to the semifinal. And Kawasumi had played only 29 minutes in two World Cup matches.

Japan's momentum continued into the second half, pouring on the offense.

Sawa jumped on a ball that was ricocheting in close in front of the Swedish goal in the 60th minute and popped in a delicate header. It was Sawa's fourth goal of the World Cup.

Every Japanese goal seemed to bring more strength, while the Swedes continued to degenerate in formation and attack.

Kawasumi came back with another goal, looping a perfect ball from just outside the box over Lindahl in the 64th minute for a 3-1 lead. The Swedish goalie came far out of the crease to break up a play but never had control of the ball. Kawasumi took over and took advantage of Lindahl's ill-timed aggressiveness.

The Japanese party started in the stands as it became obvious Sweden had no answer for Japan's momentum.

"I thought that the Swedish team would be very strong, but we wanted to put them under pressure in front of their own goal -- that was the idea," Sasaki said, "We also wanted to ease the burden on our own defensive line. Kawasumi is very tough player, very fit, she can attack and defend, and she did exactly what I asked her to do."

Sasaki smiled, then added, "What I didn't ask was for [her] to score two goals, but she had an excellent game."