Japanese team measured by heart, not height

FRANKFURT, Germany -- The Japanese women knew they wouldn't be the tallest soccer team in the 2011 FIFA Women's World Cup. They also figured they might not physically be the strongest.

But the Japanese knew something the rest of the world now has discovered: Soccer isn't just physical, it's emotional, mental and downright tactical.

The Japanese have enthralled their nation and captured the imagination of the soccer world with their inspired play en route to the World Cup final. They will play for their first World Cup on Sunday, taking on the bigger, stronger U.S. side.

Advancing to the final is no accident, according to coach Norio Sasaki, as he has been laying the groundwork since he took over in 2007.

"I think you know that the Japanese players are not tall, but our focus is on ball control and good passes, good combinations," Sasaki said. "We have good team spirit, and that leads to good team performance. Everybody has got to be involved; if they are not, we cannot perform at the international level. So that's where we place the focus. We have to fine-tune our performance as we go along, and that was what we are doing. We do not compare how we play to other teams. We only say what we are doing."

All the players have to have certain abilities and skills, and everybody on the team has been playing football since they were little. Football was always their dream, and their dream was to make the finals.
Japan coach Norio Sasaki

Japan has been on an amazing run, defeating Germany 1-0 in extra time in the quarterfinals and Sweden 3-1 in the semifinals. Those two wins represent the first World Cup victories in Japanese history over European squads.

Its only loss came in the group round, falling to England 2-0.

The team's current roster has been together for three years, formed first for the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics. They have come a long way from a fourth-place finish, according to Swedish coach Thomas Dennerby.

"I watched their game [at the Olympics], when they played the U.S.," Dennerby said. "They played better than the U.S. for a long time, but then the U.S. scored, and that was it. Japan was down, and then they were done. They are much stronger, mistakes do not do that to them anymore."

Sasaki deflects praise that he's helped improve the team since Beijing.

"All the players have to have certain abilities and skills, and everybody on the team has been playing football since they were little," Sasaki said. "Football was always their dream, and their dream was to make the finals."

Most of the team's roster plays in Japan, but a few players, such as defender Aya Sameshima, midfielders Homare Sawa and Mizuho Sakaguchi and forward Yuki Nagasato, play abroad. Sawa, the team's star and leader, has played in the WUSA and WPS.

Japan's unexpected success has become a sensation back home, with games being shown live on public and private TV channels and hordes of reporters dispatched to Germany to follow the team's every move.

Even Thursday, their off day, the Japanese women still had to dodge reporters lurking outside their hotel in downtown Frankfurt.

The team has dedicated its World Cup efforts to its country as it recovers from the devastation of the March 11 earthquake and tsunami. It also wanted to use the World Cup as a vehicle to thank the world for coming to Japan's aid. The entire team holds up a large banner, which says, "To our friends around the world, thank you for your support," in English, to all four sides of each stadium, and bows in respect.

The team's spirit, and sense of community, makes it special.

"We do it because it is right, we do it because we mean it," Sawa said, through an interpreter. "We see this as a chance for us to show the many girls who are playing now, and those who may wish to play, what it means to be at this level. We accept our responsibilities."

Even their opponents, such as Swedish reserve midfielder Nilla Fischer, respect the Japanese for their character.

"They have been through a lot, but they are a strong team," Fischer said. "You can see their togetherness. When one moves, they all move."

The team's nickname, Nadeshiko, is Japanese for a striking pink carnation that is beloved for its elegance. The nickname was chosen carefully, as the carnation is a hearty flower, made beautiful by its ruffled petals and striking colors. It lasts a long time and has a strong stem.

The Japanese women bear a striking resemblance, as they too are hearty and play sophisticated, beautiful soccer.

"I think what we have been doing, so far, is very good for Japan," Sasaki said. "We're still recovering from the disaster, the earthquake. So many victims were hit by the disaster. Even little things, like a win, can give people courage and hope. And when we play in the final, we're going to think about the end results. We just want to do what we can and perform."

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