Japanese Team Comes of Age, and Lifts a Country

Published: July 14, 2011
New York Times 

FRANKFURT, Germany — Shortly before Japan faced the two-time defending champion Germany in the quarterfinals of the Women’s World Cup, Coach Norio Sasaki gave his players solemn, even grim inspiration.

He showed them slide-show images ofthe earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan’s northeastern coast on March 11, killing more than 15,000 people and forcing one of the country’s professional women’s soccer teams to abandon its season.

“They touched us deep in our souls,” midfielder Aya Miyama told reporters.

Stirred in part by the photographs, Japan stunned Germany, 1-0, displaying not only the graceful and crafty passing that is its trademark but also newfound grit against the taller, bigger German team. Japan was given four yellow-card warnings during the match, rare for a team that is known for technical sophistication more than muscle.

“They’re playing with more fire and bite,” said Tony DiCicco, who coached the United States to the 1999 World Cup title. “Four yellow cards in one match? That’s usually two World Cups’ worth for Japan.”

On Sunday, Japan will face the United States here in the World Cup final. The Americans have won three times against the Japanese this year and are 22-0-3 over all. Until now, the rivalry has been big-sister, little-sister, DiCicco said. No longer.

“They feel they can win,” DiCicco, an analyst for ESPN, said of Japan. “That’s almost never been the case before.”

Just as Japan’s team has drawn inspiration from the perseverance of those displaced by the earthquake and tsunami, so has the country united behind the women’s stirring soccer achievement. It is the same type of buoyancy that New Orleans experienced as the Saints reached the Super Bowl in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

“What we have been doing so far is very good for Japan,” Sasaki said after his team defeated Sweden, 3-1, in the semifinals Wednesday. “We are still recovering from the disaster. There were so many victims in the area which was devastated. Even little things like a win can give people courage and hope.”

While Japan is ranked fourth in the world and reached the bronze-medal match at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, women’s soccer has not often created front-page headlines at home or diverted attention from baseball and sumo wrestling.

At 3 a.m. Thursday in Tokyo, still Wednesday night here, groups of supporters rubbed their eyes, downed some coffee and made their way into bars to watch Japan play Sweden live on television.

Several dozen fans gathered at the M-spo sports bar in the trendy Shibuya neighborhood. A few others wandered in because they had missed the last train home. Some fans said that another rousing victory would help lift a grieving nation.

“It will cheer up the whole country,” said Daichi Miura, 22, whose home and hometown of Kesennuma were heavily damaged by the tsunami. “We can’t fuss over the issue of the disaster forever. We have to move forward.”

News of Japan’s victory came too late to make it into the morning newspapers. But Nikkan Sports, one of the leading sports papers, ran a headline on its Web site that read, “Nadeshiko’s dream, at long last, has come true.”

The women’s team is nicknamed Nadeshiko, after a pink flower that symbolizes classic Japanese beauty. Players wear a pink swath on the neckline of their jerseys. The flower also possesses a hardiness reflected in the players, Sasaki, the coach, is fond of saying.

“Tonight was a milestone in the history of Japan’s women soccer history,” said Naoki Sugiyama, 61, who came to the sports bar with his friend, Kisuno Kaoruko, 51, and his daughter, Haruki Sugiyama, 21. All three wore the blue jersey of the Japanese national soccer team. “There is one thing we want now: the championship.”

The rivalry with the United States has been as friendly as it has been lopsided. American players are particularly fond of the pioneering Japanese midfielder Homare Sawa — her country’s Mia Hamm — who has played professionally in the United States. In this World Cup, Sawa, 32, scored a hat trick against Mexico and delivered the go-ahead goal in Wednesday’s victory over Sweden. She is now a minor celebrity.

“They call her Princess and Queen back home,” said Abby Wambach, the star American forward and a former club teammate of Sawa’s. “She has put the entire team on her shoulders.”

Wambach teased Sawa in a television interview with a Japanese reporter in Düsseldorf on Thursday, saying, “I know you’re making your country proud and hopefully you play terrible on Sunday.”

Sawa’s recent form suggests that is unlikely. With her guidance, Japan possessed the ball 60 percent of the time against Sweden. It has discipline, savvy and skill — not unlike France, which created havoc in the American midfield during Wednesday’s other semifinal. Since the United States played Japan in a pair of exhibitions in May, Japan has matured. Now it is converting its chances into exquisite and bountiful goals.

“She’s a great leader,” Christie Rampone, the American captain, said of Sawa. “Their team gets their pulse through her. We have to shut her down.”

Five American players have recently become teammates with Japanese defender Aya Sameshima on the Boston Breakers of Women’s Professional Soccer. Her former team, TEPCO Mareeze, was sponsored by the Tokyo Electric Power Company, which operated the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant that experienced multiple meltdowns and a substantial radiation leak in the aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami.

The team scrapped its season after the disaster, and Sameshima has relocated to the United States. She and her teammates had been part-time employees at the plant, but were away at a training camp when the earthquake struck, said DiCicco, who coaches the Breakers.

“She got counseling before she came,” DiCicco said. “I’m not sure how much she was personally affected, meaning her home, by the reactor. But the general manager told me they just couldn’t go home again. What they’re doing now is playing soccer, but as big a mission for them is to help the country heal.”

This has made Japan the sentimental favorite to win the World Cup, said Hope Solo, the American goalkeeper.

“They’re playing for something bigger and better than the game,” Solo said. “When you’re playing with so much emotion, that’s hard to play against.”

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