By any standards, Japan's success at the recent FIFA Women's World Cup™ was a fairy-tale one. Having progressed beyond the group stage only once, at Sweden 1995, Norio Sasaki's Nadeshiko arrived in Germany unnoticed but returned home today as champions and to national euphoria.
'Dream like a movie' was the headline by Sports Nippon. And it would have taken a fantaasist to predict Japan conquering the world. They had, after all, never won an AFC Women's Asian Cup.
Unsurprisingly, the Japanese girls, captained by the exceptional Homare Sawa, were greeted to a rapturous reception at Tokyo's Narita Airport, where over 400 fans and 260 journalists gathered.
In an article entitled 'Nadeshiko Japan make triumphant homecoming', Mainichi Shimbun relived the touching scene: “Hundreds of fans, many wearing blue national-team shirts, and a media throng, were at Narita Airport to welcome home the players as they filed through the arrivals lounge amid an explosion of camera flashes.”
For the faithful, it was the team's unprecedented achievement that offered them a break from misery for celebration, four months after the devastating earthquake and tsunami disasters, which left over 20,000 people dead or missing. The article continued: "Japan's World Cup victory is one of the biggest sporting achievements in the country's history, and it has provided a welcome boost after the earthquake and tsunami that ravaged Japan's north-east coast."
One of Japan's leading newspapers, Asahi Shimbun also shared the fans' happiness in a story entitled 'Japan finds reason to celebrate with World Cup win'. A 22-year-old supporter, Toru Komatsu, was quoted speaking about his feelings. "This is a chance to forget the nuclear disaster and everything else, just to unite and celebrate," he said.
En route to winning the global title, Japan mesmerised the watching world with their slick pass-and-move football and individual skills. Their never-say-die spirit was also fundamental to their success, especially in the final, when they twice came from behind to draw 2-2 with USA after extra time, before going on to prevail 3-1 on penalties.
'They tell us never to give up' was a headline in Yomiuri Shimbun, while the top article on offer in Asahi Shimbun was titled, 'They gave us courage'.
One man left in awe of the side's displays was Japan's Prime Minister, Naoto Kan. "Nadeshiko Japan drew a tight match against taller [American] players, and it gave courage for everyone by showing a spirited performance even when they were on the back foot," the 64-year-old told Mainichi Shimbun. "They even played a role in delivering the thoughts of the Japanese people. As the Prime Minister, and as one Japanese citizen, I will express my heartfelt gratitude to them."
Japan's conquest was also saluted across the continent. AFC Senior Vice-President Zhang Jilong told the confederation’s official website: “This is a great day for Asian football. The Nadeshiko have made us all immensely proud. They have shown what is possible if one has the resolve, determination and persistence.”
Commenting on the significance of Japan's victory, a journalist in Singapore's Lianhe Zaobao wrote: “Nadeshiko’s accomplishment will leave Japan with a lasting legacy, and also offer its people courage in the restoration of life.”
Desperate to return to their heady days when finished runners-up at USA 1999, China PR women's team manager Li Xiaopeng said his Steel Roses can draw inspiration from Japan's success.
"We must face the fact that Japan is among the world's best by winning the world cup," he remarked to China News Agency. "Over all these years they have grown into a matured and experienced side. They rarely made errors and played well as a team. Our players can match them individually, but we must improve our understanding of the game."