VANCOUVER, British Columbia (AP) — Four years ago when Japan’s players hoisted the Women’s World Cup trophy, a nation rejoiced.
Leading up to the victory in Germany, Japan had been deeply scarred by the deadly earthquake and tsunami. The national team gave the country reason to cheer, and the players were welcomed home as heroes.
Japan had won the nation’s first-ever title in soccer’s premier tournament by taking down the mighty Americans on penalty kicks after a 2-all draw.
Now the Japanese will again face the United States in the Women’s World Cup final, this time at Vancouver’s BC Place on Sunday. The crowd figures to be largely on the side of the Americans, with Vancouver only a short distance from the U.S. border.
“In 2011, both teams had a wonderful game in the final,” said Norio Sasaki, who has coached the women’s national team since late 2007. “And for the women’s football in the world, I hope that we will have a wonderful game like the way we did in 2011. Then I’ll be very happy.”
With a win, Japan would become just the second team to repeat as World Cup Champions (Germany, 2003 and ’07) in consecutive World Cups, and it would solidify the national team’s standing among the world elites. The United States is seeking its third title, but first since 1999.
The Japanese arrived in this year’s final with a dramatic — and for the English, heartbreaking — semifinal victory.
After England outplayed Japan for much of the second half, a charging Laura Bassett inadvertently directed the ball at the net and it ricocheted off the crossbar for an own goal in the final minute of stoppage time, giving Japan a 2-1 win.
The victory set up the rematch with the United States. Japan, ranked No. 4 in the world, has met the second-ranked Americans three previous times at the World Cup, with the United States winning two matches before the final in Germany. The U.S. women have outscored the Japanese 9-2 in the tournament.
Overall, the U.S. team is 24-1-6 against Japan.
“The final against the U.S., it’s going to be a tough game, but we’d like to have good pass work,” said defender Sayori Ariyoshi. “I would want to win, so we’d like to stick to our plan of passing.”
To get to this point in Canada, Japan won all of its group stage matches. Brazil was the only other team to sweep the opening round.
The Japanese defeated the Netherlands 2-1 to open the knockout stage before ending upstart Australia’s tournament with a 1-0 victory in the quarterfinals.
“They have an amazing team and they’re the reigning World Cup champions, so I think it’s going to be a fantastic final,” U.S. forward Abby Wambach said. “Everyone will have to bring their ‘A’ game, and whoever finishes their chances the most will come out on top. Hopefully it will be us.”
Four years ago in Germany, Japan was the sentimental favorite after all the tragedy the nation had endured in the prior months.
On March 11, 2011, more than 20,000 people were left dead or missing by a massive earthquake and tsunami that devastated much of the country’s northeast coast. The natural disaster touched off the worst nuclear catastrophe since Chernobyl in 1986 at the Fukushima nuclear power plant.
Following each match in Germany leading up to the final, the Japanese players marched across the field with a banner that read, “To our Friends Around the World — Thank You for Your Support,” in gratitude for the global outpouring of support in the wake of the disaster. Sasaki reminded his players of the events to inspire them to victory along the way.
In the final, Japan battled back from behind twice. Wambach scored in the 104th minute of overtime to give the U.S. a 2-1 lead before Homare Sawa’s goal in the 117th to tie it. Japan prevailed 3-1 on penalty kicks.
Before boarding the flight from Germany, Sawa said: “I have to dedicate this win to the people who suffered the disaster.”
This time, honor is driving Japan.
“The team is very powerful … we may not be good at playing against that,” Sasaki said. “But the final will be final, and there will is nothing beyond that. So we shouldn’t be afraid of making mistakes. And I’d like to send the players to the pitch with this strong will.”
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