2011 is a painful memory for Japan. It was a year the country was left devastated by the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami that hit its coast in March and the subsequent nuclear disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant.
The natural disaster claimed the lives of around 16000 people in Japan and left a lot of destruction in its wake. For months the Asian country was plagued by the impact of the disaster and its masses were in a serious need of a lift.
How Sports Inspires
Relive some of the most inspirational tales from the world of sports
A moment of joy, respite and much-needed reflief came in July from an unlikely source. The Japanese women’s football team.
Football was a popular sport in the country and a year before Japan had celebrated its men’s team reaching the knockout stages in the 2010 Fifa World Cup in South Africa.
Women’s football in Japan never got the same amount of love or attention despite their team being ranked fourth in the world, playing a highly technical and attractive brand of football.
When the 2011 World Cup began in Germany, Japan could barely pay a great deal of attention to the showpiece as there were graver concerns back home as the nation looked to get back on its feet.
But as the tournament progressed, the Japanese team caught the nation’s imagination with their performances. A 4-0 triumph over Mexico in the group stage confirmed their place in the knock-out stage. A quarter-final clash against hosts Germany awaited the Nadeshiko, a pink flower that symbolises classic Japanese beauty.
There was also beauty in the way they played football keeping the ball on the ground and pass it around their opponents. Many likened the Japanese team to Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona side that ruled men’s club football at the time.
But against Germany who had an average height of 6 feet and 2 inches, the challenge was different. Could Japan’s flair be able to withstand Germany’s physicality? Desperate times call for desperate measures. For Japan they didn’t have to look too far to find inspiration to perform out of their skins.
According to a report in The Guardian, Coach Norio Sasaki showed them the footage of the disaster before their game against Germany. It did the trick as Japan beat the Germans 1-0 in extra-time.
“My girls played their hearts out. We could feel the energy coming from everyone back in Japan watching on TV. I’m stunned,” Sasaki said in a TV interview after the final whistle.
Apart from their craft and skills, Japan displayed a lot of grit and an appetite to fight. In that game, Japan received four yellow cards, a rarity for the team.
“They’re playing with more fire and bite. Four yellow cards in one match? That’s usually two World Cups’ worth for Japan,” Tony DiCicco, who coached the United States to the 1999 World Cup title was quoted as saying by The New York Times.
Coach Sasaki repeated the process ahead of their semi-final against Sweden and the result was the same. Nadeshiko won 3-1 to set up a final date with the United States of America.
By then, Japan had warmed up to their team. It was the only piece of joy that had come their way after months of suffering.
Japan had a terrible record against the US. They had failed to beat the Americans in their last 25 meetings and had lost 22 of those matches.
Even though most back home knew it was a tall order, Japan woke up at 3 am on July 11 to watch its national team take a shot at the World Cup.
After a tight first hour, the US broke the deadlock through Alex Morgan in the 69th minute. Japan’s dreams appeared to be over, but Aya Miyama equalised for Japan nine minutes from time to send the tie into extra time.
Once again, the US took the lead in the 104th minute through Mary Wambach. Once again, it felt it was the end for Japan.
But on a mission to bring some solace to its disaster-hit country, Japan had a bit left in them. Captain Homare Sawa came to the rescue. In the 117th minute with the clock against Japan, Sawa made an intelligent run to the near post. The corner came at an awkward height for her but she managed to get her leg up and glance it in at the near post. Hailed by many as the greatest goal in Women’s World Cup history, got Japan level at 2-2.
The final went into penalties and the United States still reeling from the late equaliser never recovered. Goalkeeper Ayumi Kaihori was the star for Japan as the United States failed to convert its first three penalties. Saki Kumagai then stepped up and slotted her penalty into the top corner to create history for Japan, who became the first Asian team to win a Fifa event at any level.
Japan who were also the neutral’s favourite in the final made it a point to thank all those who supported the team. The team, aware of the added dimension to the result, unfurled a banner that read: “To our friends around the world. Thank you for your support.”
Back home, the mother of Sawa, Japan’s captain, told The Guardian: “I felt the whole of Japan smile.”
Akino Yoshihara, a translator from Kyoto who is more accustomed to following the men’s football team, said: “I always felt the players had the confidence to win. I’m not sure how much the tsunami factored into their performance, but they never gave up, and it’s that attitude that will help us through the aftermath of the disaster.”
Every World Cup win in inspirational in a way, but Japan’s 2011 World Cup triumph was special as it lifted a nation is grief.
“We haven’t had a single piece of good news for the past four months. It’s as if we had nothing to be hopeful about, so in that sense the result is great. It’s incredible,” Miho Kajioka, a football fan from Tokyo rightly summed it up.