Japan rewarded by the soccer gods
FRANKFURT, Germany -- By the time the first half ended in the Women's World Cup final on Sunday, it was clear to see which side was Team Destiny.
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And it wasn't the U.S.
The team that captured the hearts of those back home in a rousing comeback victory against Brazil a week ago was trumped by Japan 2-2 and 3-1 on penalties, at a sold-out, pumping Commerzbank Arena in Frankfurt. There would be no penalty joy on this occasion for the Americans, but utter delight for the Japanese, who have won their first Women's World Cup.
Charismatic Japanese coach Norio Sasaki said Saturday that he hoped the soccer gods would help him end a personal five-match losing streak against the U.S. -- and he most certainly got his wish. Japan rode its luck as the U.S. dominated in a scoreless opening half. The Americans would then go up not once but twice, only to see Japan come back to equalize against a U.S team it had never defeated in 25 attempts.
"We were lucky during the penalty shootout, but my soccer god made it possible for us to win against the U.S. for the first time," Sasaki said, smiling. "He made it possible. At least that's my impression. I think I definitely got some help from my football god."
The hat trick of sorts was complete. Japan hadn't beaten Germany or Sweden, either, before emerging victorious in the quarterfinals and semifinals, respectively. While the final technically ended in a draw, Japan bested the U.S. in the fateful shootout.
"'I truly believed this was our tournament to win," said U.S. keeper Hope Solo, the hero against Brazil. "I felt that the entire time. At the same time I think there is something bigger pulling for Japan. They are the team of the tournament, and if there's any team that you're going to lose to, I'd put my hat off to them because they have so much class and they play with so much passion. They fought and they fought."
Indeed how can anyone, no matter how fanatical a U.S. backer, not feel a bit of contentment for the Japanese following March's ravaging earthquake and tsunami?
U.S. head coach Pia Sundhage, a sincere individual, probably did. She knows, though, that in a game this big, teams can't miss handfuls of chances and expect to win. It's like those soccer gods made their way under the roof and personally directed three of the U.S.'s balls into the woodwork instead of into the back of the net.
Lauren Cheney, restored to her natural position of striker, her third position of the tournament, missed two golden chances herself. Her opportunity for atonement evaporated at halftime as she left the game with an ankle injury.
Carli Lloyd, who had a much more comfortable night than in the semifinals, didn't hit the target when in space in the middle of the box. Megan Rapinoe, delightful and frustrating in equal measure, struck the post, and Abby Wambach's wonderful left-footed effort crashed off the crossbar. Sundhage was in disbelief on the sidelines, head in hands.
That was all in the opening 45 minutes.
Lively substitute Alex Morgan hit the post from close range in the second half before opening the scoring with a lethal finish to the far post. But Japan netted when central defender Rachel Buehler's clearance smacked teammate Ali Krieger nearby, allowing Aya Miyama to pounce on a loose ball.
"It was just a little scramble in the box," captain Christie Rampone said. "It was definitely unlucky for us that the ball didn't bounce in our direction."
Wambach gave the U.S. the lead again in the 104th minute with -- what else? -- a header. But Japan's second tally, a 117th-minute goal, made it 2-2, and one sensed it was coming when Homare Sawa put the ball in the back of the net. It appeared to take a slight deflection off Wambach's hand, but no matter. The 32-year-old deserved it, given this was her fifth and likely final World Cup.
However, for most of the 120 minutes, Sawa and Miyama, Japan's two offensive sparks, were largely silenced. Sawa's giveaway contributed to Wambach's converted header in extra time. In the penalties, Japanese keeper Ayumi Kaihori stopped Shannon Boxx's drive, the first of the shootout, with her trailing leg. Unorthodox.
"Even when we were stepping up and taking PKs, I'm like, 'We got this,'" said Lloyd, who sent her own penalty over the bar. "Maybe it just wasn't our time."
Oh, the irony of it all. The U.S. was outplayed for large intervals against Brazil, and also against France, yet found a way to triumph, the attitude and Air Wambach in tow. The roles were reversed on Sunday. Overall, the U.S. had 31 shots on goal compared to Japan's 17, and Solo was rarely tested.
In seemingly every session with reporters in Germany, the U.S. has been asked about 1999 and the legacy created by the likes of Mia Hamm, Brandi Chastain and Kristine Lilly. Wambach has mostly been the target of the inquisitors and always obliged. But her body language suggested she was tiring of the inquiries.
Indeed, falling at the final stage was particularly numbing for the big No. 20. For so long a team leader, the U.S.'s main offensive threat and one of the best players of her generation, it appears she's destined to never win a World Cup. There's that word again. Wambach will be 35 by the time the next World Cup begins in Canada in 2015, young for a goalkeeper but not a physical striker.
It was also the end of the World Cup road for Rampone, the lone remaining survivor of the historic, uplifting 1999 triumph at home. Rampone, 36, was brilliant this tournament. One of the enduring moments came when the mother of two kept pace with Marta, the five-time player of the year, as she ran toward goal from the middle of the park during the thrilling quarterfinal match.
Rampone can at least say she's a World Cup champion.
Japan's players now know what that feels like. It was simply meant to be.
London-based Ravi Ubha covers soccer and tennis for ESPN.com. You can follow him on Twitter here.
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2011 Women's World Cup
2011 champion: Japan
Topics: Women's World Cup