Photo by Michael Buckelew
FRANKFURT, Germany -- Their country's misery was never far from their hearts.
Thousands dead or missing. Villages erased. Homes destroyed.
The players on Japan's women's World Cup team invoked the slow recovery from a devastating tsunami and earthquake time and again. Whatever they could do, they vowed, they would.
True to their word, the gleaming World Cup trophy will ride back on the plane with them -- a prize, they hope, that will lift the gloom, even if only for a short while.
"Before we went to the match tonight we had some commentary on television and we heard comments on the situation in Japan," coach Norio Sasaki said after Japan upset the Americans for the World Cup title in a riveting final Sunday night, 3-1 on penalty kicks, after coming from behind twice in a 2-2 tie.
"We wanted to use this opportunity to thank the people back home for the support that has been given."
This was Japan's first appearance in the final of a major tournament, and it hadn't beaten the Americans in their first 25 meetings, including a pair of 2-0 losses in warm-up games a month before the World Cup. But the Nadeshiko pushed ahead, playing inspired soccer and hoping their success could provide even a small emotional lift to their nation, where nearly 23,000 people died or were reported missing in the March 11 catastrophe.
Following each of their games in Germany, the players made a solemn parade around the field with a banner that read, "To our Friends Around the World -- Thank You for Your Support." Before Japan upset Germany in the quarterfinals, Sasaki showed his players images of the destruction to remind them of their higher purpose.
"They touched us deep in our souls," star Aya Miyama said about the photos at the time.
And they responded in kind. Joyous fans wearing Japan jerseys hugged and sang in Tokyo as they watched the players hold the trophy aloft, confetti swirling around them and flecking their hair with gold. Special newspaper editions were printed by the national papers and handed out to pedestrians in Tokyo on Monday morning, while scenes from the game were replayed constantly on television.
It was the first World Cup title won by an Asian country.
"If any other country was to win this, then I'm really happy and proud for Japan," Carli Lloyd said. "Deep down inside I really thought it was our destiny to win it. But maybe it was Japan's."
As the Japanese players celebrated, the Americans watched in stunned silence. Through every comeback, to every last second, they believed they were meant to be World Cup champions after their rocky year -- needing a playoff to qualify, a loss in group play to Sweden, the epic comeback against Brazil.
They simply couldn't pull off one last thriller.
"The players were patient. They wanted to win this game," Sasaki said. "I think it's because of that the Americans scored only two goals."
The Americans squandered countless chances before Abby Wambach scored in the 104th minute of overtime to give the U.S. a 2-1 lead.
But Homare Sawa, flicked in a corner kick in the 117th to tie it. It was the fifth goal of the tournament for Sawa, who led all scorers in her fifth World Cup.
"We ran and ran," Sawa said. "We were exhausted, but we kept running."
The Americans had beaten Brazil on penalty kicks in a quarterfinal, but they didn't have the same touch Sunday. Give feisty goalkeeper Ayumi Kaihori credit for some of that. Chirping and yelling, she showed no fear as she faced the Americans. Never mind that she is just under 5-foot-7, and the goal is 8 feet high and 24 feet across.
Shannon Boxx took the first U.S. shot, and it banged off Kaihori's right leg as she dove. After Miyama made her penalty, Lloyd stepped up and sent her shot soaring over the crossbar. As the crowd gasped, Lloyd covered her mouth in dismay.
After Kaihori's impressive two-handed save on a shot by Tobin Heath, Mizuho Sakaguchi converted Japan's third kick. One more, and Japan would win the title.
Wambach made her penalty kick, but Saki Kumagai buried hers and the rest of the Japanese players raced onto the field.
"This is a team effort," Kaihori said. "In the penalty shootout I just had to believe in myself and I was very confident."
It's been 12 years since the United States has won the World Cup, and these players were certain they were the ones to break the drought. They'd needed to beat Italy in a two-game playoff just to get into the World Cup, then lost two games in a three-month span, an unusual "bad streak" for the defending Olympic champions.
After easy wins in their first two games in Germany, the Americans lost to Sweden -- their first loss ever in World Cup group play.
But they rallied with one of the most riveting finishes ever in a World Cup game -- men's or women's -- against Brazil in the quarterfinals. Down a player for almost an hour and on the verge of making their earliest exit ever from a major tournament, Wambach's magnificent, leaping header in the 122nd minute tied the game.
The Americans beat Brazil on penalty kicks and, just like that, a nation was hooked.
Hollywood celebrities, pro athletes, even folks who don't know a bicycle kick from a Schwinn were captivated by the U.S. women and charmed by their grit and can-do attitude that is uniquely -- proudly -- American. Even President Barack Obama was a fan, taking to Twitter himself on Sunday morning to wish the team well.
"Sorry I can't be there to see you play, but I'll be cheering you on from here. Let's go. -- BO."
But it was not to be.
Not this time. Not against a team -- and a nation -- to whom the victory meant so much more than just a title.
"It just seemed like all of Japan suffered so much," Wambach said. "It seemed like their country needed them to win more than ours."