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The U.S.'s virtuosity in the Brazil shootout—all five penalties converted, Solo's diving save—fed the Americans' confidence heading into the spot kicks against Japan. But goalkeeper Ayumi Kaihori set the tone by blocking Shannon Boxx's opening penalty with a sprawling rightfooted kick save, and the U.S. unraveled from there.
It's one thing to go to your city park and fire penalties past your friend on a lazy summer day when the goal looks as big as a swimming pool. It's another to do it in front of a sold-out stadium and a global audience, with the World Cup on the line. "Going to penalties in two games in a major tournament, that's really tough," said Solo, who made a diving save on Japan. "We were money with our penalty-takers last time, and I think that's really hard to come back and do again."
When Kumagai drilled her spot kick past Solo to clinch the title, she sparked a joyous celebration that spread from the stadium in Frankfurt to wee-hours viewing parties in Tokyo. The Japanese players are called Nadeshiko after a pink flower that symbolizes Japanese womanhood, and their unexpected triumph brought a moment of soul-stirring national pride to a country still recovering from the earthquake and tsunami on March 11 that killed more than 15,000 people. Before Japan's quarterfinal upset of Germany and semifinal win over Sweden, Sasaki showed his players images of the devastation to reinforce the idea that they were playing for their nation. The pictures hit home: Left back Aya Sameshima had worked at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant while playing for the team sponsored by the plant's owner. After the plant suffered multiple meltdowns in the wake of the earthquake, the team disbanded, and Sameshima joined the Boston Breakers of the WPS, the U.S. women's league.
"With the tsunami and earthquake in Japan there are a lot of people very troubled," Sawa said after the final. "We wanted to give something to these people, if only a little." They did. At a Tokyo sports bar, 36-year-old fan Jun Hajiro was one of the many who reveled long into the night. "Though the Japanese team is physically smaller than the Americans, they had the strong mentality to win," Hajiro said amid the roaring celebration. "They played for Japan and our recovery."
Japan's victory was all the more stunning given the nation's meager soccer participation: Just 25,000 girls are registered as players in all of Japan, compared with 200,000 in California alone. The Japanese women's league is not professional, which means players must take full-time jobs and practice in the evenings. Corporate sponsorship is minimal, and the Japanese federation only began investing significant resources in the women's game five years ago. But it's quality, not quantity, that counts, and Japan has reaped the rewards of its schools' teaching technical skills to young female players. As a result, no team in the world passes the ball better than the Nadeshiko.
After raising their trophy on Sunday, the Japanese players unfurled their trademark banner—TO OUR FRIENDS AROUND THE WORLD, THANK YOU FOR YOUR SUPPORT—and politely bowed as one as the deserved applause washed over them. Only the heartless would begrudge them their World Cup title, and if we know one thing about the U.S. players, they aren't lacking heart. "I'm happy for Japan," said Lloyd, one of several U.S. team members who helped raise money to support Japanese disaster recovery.
What comes next for the U.S.? Nearly all of the players will return to the WPS and hope their newfound popularity helps the struggling six-team league. Whether that bounce comes or not, Solo, Wambach and Morgan will emerge from the World Cup with more individual star power—though not as much as a title would have brought.
On the field the U.S. may not change much between now and the 2012 Olympics. A few older players, including Boxx, 34, and Rampone, 36, will have to fight to stay in the starting lineup, while rising stars such as Morgan, Rapinoe and Lauren Cheney (a starter on Sunday who left at halftime with an ankle injury) figure to take on more prominent roles, bringing more creativity and speed to the U.S. attack. As the Americans defend their 2008 gold medal in London next summer, they'll continue to face pressure from teams such as Japan and France to show the skill and attacking verve we saw in Sunday's final.
So polite were the Japanese players in the interview area after the game that when four of them formed a bustling conga line, they almost instantly stopped, put their hands over their mouths and apologized to reporters ("Sorry! Sorry!") for making too much noise. Considering that they'd just played in one of the most dramatic finals ever staged in any sport, you couldn't help but smile. Women's soccer may be more competitive than ever, but there was still something pure about the admiration between the Americans and the Japanese after their classic match. "I have many friends on the American team, but especially Abby," said Sawa, who had been Wambach's teammate in the U.S. women's league. "It was great to play such a good match together, in a sense."
Together. It was a revealing sign of mutual respect. And maybe, on a triumphant night for women's soccer, that was exactly the point.