Alex Morgan

A fan wonders what could have been as the 2011 Women’s World Cup ended Sunday afternoon. The United States lost to Japan 3-1 on penalty kicks in the explosive finale held in Frankfurt, Germany.

Photo Credit: Trent Lesikar | Daily Texan Staff

If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times — sports have this uncanny way of mimicking real life in some form
or fashion.

When Japan won the 2011 Women’s World Cup, they were ranked the fourth best team in the world, and miles behind the Americans, Swedes and Germans in terms of size and power. But like Japan, the nation, the players progressed forward with a quiet confidence that can’t be found in many teams, especially when their friends and family were dealing with disaster back home.

When Japan was devastated by the costly March earthquake — in terms of both lives and money — they spent little time grieving. Rather, they lived by the Japanese word “ganbare,” which has no literal translation into English. According to Japanese linguists, “persevere,” “fight on” and “hang in there” don’t quite capture its deeper meaning, but it is somewhere along those lines.

The nation still grieving, still working together to clean up the billions of dollars in damages, still mourning the uncountable loss of life, still trying to find any semblance of normalcy in their daily routines exemplifies the word, and it is certainly a mantra the Japanese squad lived by throughout the tournament and most evidently in the final match.

America shot 31 shots in the final. Abby Wambach, Alex Morgan, Carli Lloyd, Lauren Cheney and the rest of the U.S. team fired round after round at the small Japanese goalie, Ayumi Kaihori, but she didn’t sweat it. She allowed two perfectly executed, indefensible goals in, but brilliantly navigated the rest of the barrage.

America played power ball, and played it well for majority of the match. Morgan was able to use her speed and toughness to get in front of the Japanese defense and smash a shot into the upper corner of the net. Japan answered a few minutes later by being patient, forcing the U.S. to make a mistake and setting itself up for a cute little tap in right in front of Hope Solo and the American defense.

When Wambach received that beautiful cross from Morgan in the 104th minute, she towered over her defender to strike a perfect header into the back of the net. That didn’t stop the little-engine-that-could Japanese team from playing that unique brand of touch-and-go soccer that set up the eventual Homare Sawa back-heel goal in the dramatic 117th minute.

There’s no reason to be happy the United States lost, but there surely is reason to be happy Japan won. As a matter of fact, the United States played the better game, and in a perfect sports world, the stronger team should always come out on top.

But like the world, sports aren’t perfect, they are real. And reality, like sports, has only a few truths — mental toughness, teamwork and, above all, perseverance pay in the long run.

By the time the inevitable penalty kicks rolled around (you knew that was the only way to end the drama), Japan was aware it had finally worked hard enough to gain the upper hand. Before the teams took to the pitch, the Japanese team didn’t say much in their huddle. The camera caught head coach Norio Sasaki, simply smiling at his team in the huddle, as if to say, “We’ve already won this, now make it official.” Or maybe he was saying “ganbare.” 

Printed on 07/18/2011 as: Japanese overcome odds, win in incredible fashion over favored Americans

Abby Wambach celebrates her 79th-minute go-ahead goal during the United States’ 3-1 win over France in the Women’s World Cup semifinal match. The U.S. will face Japan in the final Sunday.

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

MOENCHENGLADBACH, Germany — Abby Wambach sure knows how to deliver.

A goal, a promise and soon, she hopes, a World Cup title.

The U.S. women had fans on edge once again until Wambach broke a tense tie with her header off a cornerkick in the 79th minute Wednesday. Alex Morgan scored three minutes later to seal a 3-1 semifinal victory over France, and the Americans let loose with a party that carried all the way across the Atlantic Ocean.

Next up, a trip to the World Cup final Sunday in Frankfurt that will be the first for Americans since 1999, when they last won it all. They’ll play Japan, which upset Sweden 3-1 to move one step away from realizing its own dream.

“We’ve achieved part of our goal. We’re in the final,” Wambach said. “We want to complete it. We want to be world champs.”

So do their fans, new and old.

The Americans captivated the crowd back home with their epic, come-from-behind win over Brazil on Sunday, and a little thing called a workday wasn’t going to deter them. Some fans skipped work — bars opened early for the noon Eastern Time kickoff ­— while others sneaked peeks at the game in the office. At the Phoenix airport, dozens of fans crowded around TVs to watch the game.

When the final whistle blew, Hollywood celebrities, pro athletes and ordinary folks who didn’t know a free kick from a corner kick just a few days ago flooded Twitter with congratulations. “My heroes. Wambach. Boxx. Rapinoe. Solo. That TEAM! Our team!” actor Tom Hanks tweeted. Super Bowl MVP Aaron Rodgers said, “Awesome job U.S. Women, finish it off Sunday now.”

Wambach and company were glad to share the moment.

“These wins, we can’t do it alone. We know a whole nation is cheering us on,” Wambach said. “We believe in ourselves, and we’re in the final. I couldn’t be happier.”

A little relieved, too.

France was the surprise of the tournament, making the semifinals with a creativity and flair that was breathtaking to behold. And for much of the game, the U.S. couldn’t contain Les Bleues.

“We didn’t play well today,” said U.S. coach Pia Sundhage. “However, we find a way to win, and that’s a credit to the players’ hearts. That’s what makes it so wonderful to be coach of this team.”

With the U.S. struggling to create opportunities in the middle, Sundhage replaced Carli Lloyd with sparkplug Megan Rapinoe early in the second half, moved Lauren Cheney inside and pulled Wambach back to the midfield.

The difference was immediately noticeable. The Americans were able to push forward and began threatening French goalkeeper Berangere Sapowicz.

Finally, in the 79th, the Americans won a corner kick.

“I told (Cheney) at halftime, ‘Put the ball to the back post, and we’re going to get a goal,’” Wambach said.

Cheney delivered the ball perfectly to the far post and, just as Wambach had predicted, she soared over the scrum and pushed the ball past Sapowicz.

“I knew Abby was going to beat her,” Cheney said, referring to the French defender who practically mugged Wambach to try and contain her.

Asked how, Cheney said, “Because she’s Abby Wambach.”

Wambach let out a scream and did a sliding sprint into the corner, where she was mobbed by her teammates. It was her third goal of the tournament and 12th of her career, tying fellow American Michelle Akers for third on the all-time World Cup scoring list.

Morgan then put the game out of reach, outracing four defenders and then stutter-stepping in front of the goal, throwing Sapowicz off and leaving the American with a wide-open shot.

“The priority is not to accept another goal,” France coach Bruno Bini said through a translator. “When that happens, you’ve had it. We conceded another goal, and that was it for us.”

Mia Hamm, Brandi Chastain, Julie Foudy and Co. got the rock-star treatment during the ‘99 World Cup, and every team since then has lived in their shadow. Part of the problem is that no team’s been able to duplicate that group’s success. But nobody’s been able to captivate the U.S. public like that golden group, either.

Until now.

“In the end, we’re in the finals,” Wambach said. “And that’s all that matters.”