Japan pulls out victory in electrifying World Cup finale

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United States goalkeeper Hope Solo fails to save a penalty during the penalty shootout of the final match between Japan and the United States at the Women’s Soccer World Cup in Frankfurt, Germany, Sunday.

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

FRANKFURT, Germany — Japan stunned the Americans in a riveting Women’s World Cup final, beating them 3-1 on penalty kicks Sunday after coming from behind twice in a 2-2 tie. Goalkeeper Ayumi Kaihori made two brilliant saves in the shootout.

“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. “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 they had not 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, still reeling from the March 11 earthquake and tsunami that devastated the northern coast of the country and left nearly 23,000 dead or missing.

After each game, the team unfurled a banner saying, “To our Friends Around the World — Thank You for Your Support.” On Sunday, they did it before the match and afterward they had a new sign to display: Champions — and the first Asian country to win this title.

The Americans found it all too hard to grasp. 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.”

While Japan celebrated at midfield, the Americans stood as a group and watched.

“There are really no words,” Abby Wambach said. “We were so close.”

Minutes, in fact.

After Wambach scored in the 104th minute of overtime to give the Americans a 2-1 lead, Homare Sawa flicked in a corner kick in the 117th to tie it. It was the fifth goal of the tournament for Sawa, who was playing 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 Kaihori credit for some of that. Shannon Boxx took the first U.S. shot, and it banged off Kaihori’s right leg as she dove. After Aya Miyama made her penalty, Carli Lloyd stepped up and sent her shot soaring over the crossbar. As the crowd gasped, Lloyd covered her mouth in dismay.

Hope Solo saved Japan’s next shot, but Kaihori made an impressive two-handed save on a shot by Tobin Heath.

“This is a team effort,” Kaihori said. “In the penalty shootout I just had to believe in myself and I was very confident.”

Solo came up with a save, and Wambach buried her penalty kick.

But Japan need to make just one more, and Saki Kumagai did.

“It’s tough to do two rounds of penalties,” Wambach said. “The keeper knows in a lot of ways where we’re going to go. She made some great saves.”

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 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, of course, it was not to be.

“If any other country was to win this, then I’m really happy and proud for Japan,” Lloyd said. “Deep down inside I really thought it was our destiny to win it. But maybe it was Japan’s.”

Printed on 07/18/2011 as: Japan stuns US in back-and-forth final mach