Japan pulls off World Cup shocker

Japan's players celebrate winning their Women's World Cup final soccer match against the U.S. in...

Japan's players celebrate winning their Women's World Cup final soccer match against the U.S. in Frankfurt on July 17, 2011. (REUTERS/Alex Domanski)

MORRIS DALLA COSTA, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 7:00 PM ET

It was a fitting end to a riveting tournament.

The 2011 Women's World Cup was a showpiece event, provided an unlikely winner and whetted the appetite for the 2015 event being held in Canada.

Japan staged perhaps the most stunning upset in women's soccer history by defeating the United States 3-2 on kicks from the penalty spot to win the World Cup in Germany Sunday.

Very few people believed Japan had a chance to upset the Americans. But the Japanese never gave up, overcoming unbelievable American pressure for most of the game and coming back twice when it looked they were all but finished.

Abby Wambach, on a header in the 104th minute, appeared to have scored the winner. But Japan's magnificent Homare Sawa scored her fifth goal of the tournament, this one in the 117th minute to tie the game and force kicks.

It was the second time in the game Japan scored shortly after the United States had taken the lead.

"We ran and ran. We were exhausted but we kept running," Sawa said to The Associated Press.

Japan coach Norio Sasaki predicted a World Cup win before the tournament.

"Not one of the players gave up," Sasaki said. "The penalty kicks are always a 50-50% chance."

Japan never made past the quarterfinals of the World Cup prior to this tournament. The United States has two titles and three third-place finishes in the five World Cups played.

The final provided the same kind of enticing drama and excitement that was the calling card of this World Cup.

Prior to Sunday, it had been the United States that provided some last-minute drama in the World Cup. But when it came to these penalty kicks, the Americans looked done. They missed their first three with Japan keeper Ayumi Kaihori stopping two of them.

Saki Kumagai scored the winner to conclude an improbable, incredible run by Japan, the first Asian nation to win the World Cup.

"It's obviously heartbreaking," Wambach said. "Japan played well. They never gave up."

Having Japan in the final was drama enough, considering everything that country has gone through -- an earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown -- in recent months. They were the sentimental favourite.

But Japan earned this World Cup, defeating Germany and Sweden just to get to the final. The Japanese had one of the toughest schedules in the tournament.

It was the third gold-medal match to go to extra time. The United States won in 1999 on penalties and Germany won in 2003 with an extra-time goal.

The Americans thought they had this game won twice.

The first came when second-half substitute Alex Morgan latched onto a long ball, fought off a Japanese defender and drove the ball into the bottom corner from 16 yards out in the 69th minute. It gave the Americans a 1-0 lead.

With the lack of Japanese offensive output, it looked as though that would be enough.

But this game had plenty of surprising turns left.

Japan stunned the Americans in the 80th minute to tie the game. The U.S. couldn't clear the ball from their six-yard area and it fell to Aya Miyama. She jabbed the ball past goalkeeper Hope Solo.

"A couple of mistakes and we let them in the game," U.S. coach Pia Sundhage said in a televised interview. "It's hard to lose with PKs. We couldn't put away our chances. It's a small difference between winning and losing."

If anything, this tournament proved that the chasm in the skill level between nations is dwindling rapidly.

In the end, the World Cup provided the best of women's soccer, offering up far more excitement than anything the 2010 men's tournament provided.

There is little question it will provide the impetus for nations to further develop women's soccer. It also shows that the end product is marketable and entertaining.

Japan's win in 2011 should also show the Canadian national team program that in 2015, when the World Cup comes to Canada, anything is possible.

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morris.dallacosta@sunmedia.ca


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