Three of the sure-to-be major players at this summer’s Women’s Olympic Football Tournament are poised to clash this week in a newly-established three-nation competition in Japan. Brazil and USA have travelled across the globe to meet 2011 FIFA Women’s World Cup™ winners Japan in the Women’s Kirin Challenge Cup as the three sides enter the final phase of their pre-Olympic preparations.

With Japan, USA and Brazil occupying three of the top four spots in the FIFA Women’s World Rankings, and each boasting a proud place in women’s football history, the round-robin tournament could well prove out to be a mouthwatering preview of what is to come at London 2012. Japan are set to open the competition tomorrow against USA, and ahead of kick-off, revisits some of the most thrilling encounters between the three sides.

A new rivalry ignites
*Japan-USA, Yurtec Stadium, Sendai
1 April

After finishing third in the 2010 AFC Women’s Asian Cup to qualify for last summer’s FIFA Women’s World Cup, Japan quietly emerged as the tournament’s dark horses. A catastrophic 8.9 magnitude earthquake and tsunami rocked their country just three months prior to the event, and it was clear the *Nadeshiko’s intent at Germany 2011 was to hoist the trophy and in doing so, help lift an ailing nation. The Japanese shocked onlookers when they dumped out hosts Germany in the quarter-finals, and went on to beat Sweden in the semi-finals. Their success set up for an epic final against a USA side who were full of confidence as they sought to become the competition’s most successful side.

It seemed the feminine side of football was attracting unprecedented interest, with millions tuning into the final in Germany from every corner of the globe. History had favoured the Americans to take the spoils, but in a dramatic decider in Frankfurt, the Japanese put up a brave fight to twice come from behind and after a tense penalty shoot-out, become just the fourth team to ever lift the FIFA Women’s World Cup trophy.

Following that success, Japan again denied the Stars and Stripes just one month ago in the group phase of the Algarve Cup. In their first meeting post-World Cup, the United States were clearly nervous, and while neither side enjoyed many attacking chances, it was Japan who dealt the final blow when substitute Megumi Takase nodded home with only six minutes remaining. As a result, the Japanese reached the final where they lost out to Germany, while USA were forced to settle for third in a 4-0 defeat of Sweden.

USA will certainly be eager to get the better of Japan tomorrow, after a strong string of results against the Asians in the past. After showing Japan the door at the quarter-finals stage of the Women’s World Cup in Sweden in 1995, USA also went on to defeat them in the quarter-finals of the 2004 Olympic Games and in the semi-finals at Beijing 2008.

A chip forever remains
Brazil-USA, Fukuda Denshi Arena, Chiba
3 April

Meanwhile, there is a longstanding rivalry between Brazil and USA, which can first be traced back to a golden era in women's football in the United States. At the 1999 FIFA Women's World Cup, an American side lead by the likes of two-time FIFA Women’s World Player of the Year Mia Hamm and Michelle Akers sparked the interest of a football-wary public. Fans showed up in droves in hopes the US would clinch the Women’s World Cup on home soil, which they did. However, not without earning a new rival in Brazil. En route to the Final, the Americans beat the South Americans in front of a 70,000-plus crowd in San Francisco at the last-four stage, with Cindy Parlow and Akers scoring two goals without reply.

The United States’ success in ’99 was one for the ages, and initiated a decade that would see both USA and Brazil battle in some of the most enticing matches the women’s game has ever seen. In their next meeting of note, a solitary goal from Mia Hamm edged USA past the Brazilians in the semi-finals at the Olympics in Sydney in 2000. And while the Americans slipped up in the final to Norway at those Games, they followed up that effort with Gold at Athens 2004 as they denied As Canarinhas their first major trophy. American forward Abby Wambach dealt the decisive blow as, in typical fashion, she headed home the winner in a 2-1 victory in the final.

The storied rivalry continued, but this time a USA-side, in shambles under the guidance of then coach Greg Ryan, crumbled for the first time against Brazil on the world stage at the 2007 FIFA Women’s World Cup in China. A feud erupted among a normally united United States side, with Ryan famously preferring veteran goalkeeper Briana Scurry over Hope Solo for their semi-final showdown against Brazil. The unease among the team shone through, and Brazil barraged the US net for four unanswered goals. An own goal got things rolling, but there was no stopping five-time FIFA Women’s World Player of the Year Marta as she bagged a brace either side of a Cristiane goal.

As of late, the United States have just narrowly scraped by their old foes. At Beijing 2008, Carli Lloyd scored the only goal in extra time as the Americans returned to the top of the podium, while Brazil tearfully settled for second. And in their last meeting, Abby Wambach again proved spoiler. Having played over an hour with ten players, Wambach scored an unlikely header goal in the 122nd minute to force their last-eight match against Brazil at Germany 2011 into penalties, where USA eventually knocked out their bitter rivals.

Dreams made of Gold
Japan-Brazil, Homes Stadium, Kobe
5 April

After their early exit in Germany, Brazil have yet to claim top honours at a major world tournament, but are desperately clinging to thoughts of winning Gold at London 2012. While the Brazilians have suffered from a sparse international schedule in their preparations for both the Olympic Games and FIFA Women’s World Cup, an opportunity to take on the reigning world champions before they grace the world stage this summer will certainly be one they'll relish.

While last summer’s Women’s World Cup final between Japan and USA, and the roller coaster rivalry between Brazil and the United States perhaps make up for some of the most memorable moments among these elite sides, both the Nadeshiko and A Seleção have locked horns a time or two as well.

Back in 1995, the Japanese enjoyed their best-ever finish at the Women’s World Cup by reaching the quarter-finals - that is of course until their meteoric rise last summer in Germany. Japan navigated their way past Brazil in the group phase, coming from behind through two Akemi Noda goals to beat the South Americans 2-1 and advance into the last eight as one of the two best third-place finishers from the first stage. Prior to that, the two sides had only met at a major championship in the first instalment of the FIFA Women’s World Cup. The Brazilians were on the better end of the scoreline that time around, though, as they edged past Japan 1-0 in their first-round match. Interestingly enough, the 1991 edition of the global showpiece marked the only time Brazil, Japan and USA were all drawn into the same group at a FIFA Women's World Cup. And now, over 20 years later, the three will vie again as they prepare for London 2012, however, this time each side proudly hold their place among the global elite.

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