FRANKFURT, Germany – It was the most gut-wrenching, most emotional and most dramatic final in the history of the Women’s World Cup.
It produced the most surprising, most gloriously happy and most deserving world champion women’s soccer has yet seen.
As far as Sunday nights in Frankfurt go, this one will take some beating. As far as fairytales go, even Germany’s Grimm Brothers could not have penned this story.
Japan, riding the emotions of a domestic tragedy and the overwhelming good will of neutral fans worldwide, won the sixth Women’s World Cup, defeating the United States, 3-1 on penalty kicks, after a 2-2 tie in extra time.
Twice, the Japanese were on the canvas, or at least the green grass of Frankfurt’s sold-out Commerzbank Arena. Twice, they got up off the ground and tied the score.
When it came down to penalty kicks, the Americans strangely lost their nerve while the Japanese held theirs.
The result was that the U.S. failed in its attempt to become the first three-time world champion, while Japan succeeded in becoming Asia’s first Women’s World Cup winner – barely four months after the nation was devastated by a magnitude 9 earthquake and a deadly tsunami.
In 25 previous matches between the countries, the U.S. had an overwhelming 22-0-3 advantage. It was the favorite. It was supposed to bring the trophy home. It was meant to show once again that if the American men can’t do it, the American women can.
Well, not this time. The U.S. is still officially unbeaten against Japan at 22-0-4, but that record comes with a gigantic asterisk.
Because, truth be told, the Americans lost this game just as much as the Japanese won it. The U.S. should have been two or three goals ahead by halftime; instead, it was locked in a scoreless tie.
American defensive blunders allowed that 0-0 stalemate to turn into a 1-1 stalemate and then a 2-2 stalemate. It then came down to penalties and here’s how that worked out:
Veteran U.S. midfielder Shannon Boxx saw her effort denied by a foot save from goalkeeper Ayumi Kaihori. Then Aya Miyama scored for Japan.
Carli Lloyd blasted her shot high over the crossbar. Then Yuki Nagasato’s shot was saved by U.S. goalkeeper Hope Solo, diving right.
Tobin Heath’s shot was saved by Kaihori, diving right. Then Mizuho Sakaguchi’s effort went in off Solo’s hand at the post.
Abby Wambach scored to keep the U.S. alive, barely. Then Saki Kumagai’s shot flashed into the net and Japan was the world champion.
“I just had to believe in myself and I was very confident,” Kaihori said of her two crucial saves.
It was the cruelest of endings for the U.S., the happiest of outcomes for Japan, and there were tears aplenty when it was all over.
“Yes, we had luck in the penalty shootout and I definitely got some help from my football god,” Japan coach Norio Sasaki said with a smile. Before Japan’s semifinal victory over Sweden, Sasaki had said, “Only the god of football knows who will win.”
Pia Sundhage, the U.S. coach, tried to put on a brave face.
“It will be a final to remember,” she said. “At the highest level, you have to take your chances, and we weren’t sharp enough with the two goals conceded.”
The American team carried the game to Japan from the opening whistle and carved out four clear scoring chances in the first quarter of an hour in front of a sellout crowd of 48,837.
In fact, the U.S. was dominant throughout the first 45 minutes, but was unable to find the back of the net. Lauren Cheney, who went off injured at halftime, Wambach, Lloyd and Megan Rapinoe all missed gilt-edged chances.
Eventually, it was 22-year-old Alex Morgan, who gave the U.S. the lead in the 69th minute.
Taking down a long downfield pass by Rapinoe, she raced past three defenders and scored with a tremendous shot into the bottom right corner of the net.
Kaihori threw herself at the shot but it was perfectly placed and she was unable to reach it.
Victory beckoned, but the drama had several more acts to go.
A nightmare defensive mistake by the U.S. gifted Japan the tying goal in the 81st minute when an attempted clearance kick by Rachel Buehler bounced off teammate Ali Krieger and fell right in front of Japan midfielder Miyama.
Miyama, appearing surprised, nonetheless had the presence of mind to flick the ball with the outside of her left foot into the net from close range.
In extra time, victory was again within reach when Wambach gave the U.S. a 2-1 advantage, scoring a headed goal off a pass from Morgan in the 104th minute.
But Japan’s most iconic player, Homare Sawa, playing in her fifth and last World Cup, somehow contrived to tie it up three minutes before the end of extra time, directing the ball past Solo from an acute angle. It was Sawa’s fifth goal of the tournament, making her the golden boot winner as scoring champion.
Wambach’s goal, incidentally, made her the all-time U.S. leader in World Cup goals scored with 13, one more than Michelle Akers. Not that that was much compensation.
“We had our chances … and we didn’t put them away,” Wambach said.