Their respective penalty shoot-out heroics will ensure that Ayumi Kaihori and Saki Kumagai are names that will go down in history following Japan’s sensational FIFA Women’s World Cup triumph over USA in Frankfurt.
Kaihori saved two penalties in the shoot-out, from USA’s Shannon Boxx and Tobin Heath, to offer Kumagai the chance to win the tournament for the Nadeshiko, which she took in emphatic fashion to spark celebrations both in the stadium and their home nation.
In the immediate aftermath of their glory, both players took time to tell FIFA.com what the victory means to them and their country. “We have now proved that Japan can beat the top teams and play at the top level,” said goalkeeper Kaihori.
“Also, it’s not an easy time for Japan at the moment and I feel we have given some kind of encouragement and joy to the people back in Japan. That was always the motivation. We wanted to do something for Japan. I’m very happy; it doesn’t quite feel like reality. I always believed that it would come true one day.”
Team-mate Kumagai was equally emotional after showing tremendous courage to take the decisive spot-kick: “This is the happiest moment of my life. I just kicked the penalty with all of my self-confidence. USA scored two goals against us but my team-mates overturned that and then we went on to the penalty shoot-out. It was really great.”
In a fitting turn of events, the defender, who is just 20-years-old, recently joined local side FFC Frankfurt to play her club football. “I’m happy I was able to do this in Frankfurt, and while I don’t yet feel at home, I’m happy I was able to appeal to all the fans here,” the former Urawa Red Diamonds player added.
After her two vital saves, Kaihori admitted she relished the opportunity to play a key role in the final outcome. The Kyoto-born keeper explained: “I’m not sure that I can say that I like it, but yes, it’s one of the chances that goalkeepers get to be a hero. When I save a penalty in a shoot-out it’s something I can do for the team and that way I get to help my team-mates.”
Kumagai was quick to acknowledge the shot-stopper’s impact: “She was great in the goal tonight, and did everything we could hope from her. I believed in her the whole way through and it was her that put me in the position to score the winning penalty.”
Special praise for Sawa
The whole Japan squad will also be aware of the influence of their inspirational midfielder Homare Sawa, who had extra cause for celebration after being named Player of the Tournament and winning the Golden Boot thanks to her extra-time strike in the Final.
Both Kaihori and Kumagai were keen to praise their team-mate for her performance both in the Final and throughout the competition. Kumagai said: “She was very impressive throughout the whole three weeks. I’m very happy to have played with her as my captain and see her win the player of the tournament.”
Kaihori, who also plays with Sawa at club level with Japanese outfit INAC Leonessa, added: “I was encouraged by Sawa a lot. She’s a great player and I always look at her and she leads us and I always believed she would do something today.”