One day before their gold-medal match at Wembley Stadium, nine members of the U.S. and Japan women's soccer teams stood shoulder to shoulder in front of more than 100 members of the international press. Moments earlier, the Japanese players had finished their first London news conference; the American players were arriving to begin theirs.
As the two teams passed each other at the door, there was no stare-down, no stone-faced nods of recognition. Instead, there were smiles. The two groups stopped and shook hands. The players then lined up, U.S.-Japan-U.S.-Japan, as photographers captured what is sure to be an enduring image from this Olympics, their cameras helping to bring Thursday's game into clearer focus.
This is not just a rematch of the 2011 Women's World Cup final and a way for the U.S. team to avenge its heartbreaking loss. Nor is it simply a game between two teams that are well aware of how much a gold medal will do for the advancement of soccer in their home countries. This is a match that will be played between two teams with the utmost respect for each other.
"They are the world champions," said Abby Wambach, a U.S. co-captain and the player who has been most vocal about her desire to show how far the team has come in the past year and prove they are the best in the world. She's talked of World Cup nightmares and golden Olympic dreams. Make no mistake: The U.S. players want to win this game, and they are thrilled Japan is the team they will face -- but not only because they are thirsty for revenge.
"I saw Sawa in the village this morning and we told each other we were both glad the other had won," Wambach said of Japanese player Homare Sawa, who played for a time in the WPS. "We believe we are the top two teams in the world and our fans deserve to see a great final. This is going to be nothing short of that."
Added U.S. midfielder Megan Rapinoe, "They snatched our dream last year and still, we have the utmost respect for them."
During their time at the dais, the Japanese players spoke about their burgeoning rivalry with the U.S. and how they would match their opponents' motivation.
"I know they would like to beat us because of what happened last year," captain Aya Miyama said through a translator. "But in our long history, we have had 20 losses or so [to the U.S.], so when you think of being in a position of wanting revenge, I think we are in a pretty good place, too." And, as they say, revenge is best served cold.
Several times during the news conference, reporters made reference to the U.S. team's semifinal game with Canada and the controversy around the rare six-second call referee Christiana Pedersen made on Canada goalkeeper Erin McLeod. When asked if he had concerns about the officiating, Japanese coach Norio Sasaki replied, "We don't have any such concern."
For their part, the U.S. players said they want only to look forward. They believe this game will be different from those they've played in the past two weeks, a less physical game that will showcase two highly tactical and technical teams.
"We will still bring an edge and have to be physical," said U.S. midfielder Carli Lloyd. "But stomping on a player's head or sucker punching is not part of the game. I hope actions will be taken against [Melissa Tancredi]. But with Japan, that won't happen. We're friendly outside the lines. And inside the lines, it's all business."
Lloyd was referring to incidents in two games the U.S. team contested at this Olympics. After their group-play game with Colombia, Colombian player Lady Andrade was suspended for two games for punching Wambach in the right eye. In the semifinal match against Canada, Tancredi appeared to purposely stomp Lloyd's head in the box but was not whistled for a foul.
"When I saw the replay, I couldn't believe it," Lloyd said. "I thought it was an accident."
Lloyd and her teammates expect no such accidents to take place on Thursday.
"We've talked about it as a team and I can almost guarantee none of that will happen tomorrow," Wambach said when asked about the physical play so far in this tournament. "Teams use it as tactics because they are not technically or tactically better than us. [Japan] is so good and we are so good that it is going to be about beautiful soccer and amazing goals. People will become legends tomorrow night."
She just hopes those people will be wearing red, white and blue.