It is hard to imagine a more mentally challenging task in the game than taking a penalty in a World Cup Final. It is, after all, a challenge many of the world’s greatest players have failed. Japan’s Saki Kumagai, however, has not only successfully achieved the feat, but her strike secured an emotional 2011 FIFA Women’s World Cup™ crown for a country still reeling from a devastating earthquake a few months earlier.
Given the context, it would seem Kumagai was a grizzled veteran of international football when given the task of taking the fourth and, ultimately decisive, spot-kick. In fact, Kumagai was just 20 when she coolly slotted the winning penalty past USA goalkeeper Hope Solo, as the Nadeshiko secured an unexpected title at the expense of their more-favoured opponent. In an instant, Kumagai became a celebrity in Japan, and her decisive intervention has since become one of the truly iconic scenes in Women’s World Cup history.
In retrospect, it almost seems like that moment in Frankfurt was meant to be. On a personal level, Kumagai had just linked with local top-ranked Frauen Bundesliga side 1.FFC Frankfurt, while she had been the fifth kicker for Japan in a crucial AFC U-19 Championship win a few years earlier. The fact that Japan even made it to penalties at the Germany 2011 decider was remarkable. USA dominated large periods of the match without quite being able to deliver the killer blow. Japan drew level in the latter stages through a fortuitous Aya Miyama strike before doing so a second time deep into extra time via inspirational captain Homare Sawa.
Enjoying the moment
Despite that, or perhaps because of it, Kumagai says she was calm and composed during the shoot-out. “The feeling I had was that I was enjoying the situation, and that I wasn't nervous at all,” Kumagai revealed to FIFA.com, when asked about her emotions as she waited on the halfway line during penalties.
“Just before the shoot-out started, one of the older players said that this moment might never happen again in our lives, to be at a situation waiting for a penalty shoot-out in a World Cup final. I was young, of course at the time, but the experienced players told us, ‘You have to enjoy this moment’, and that took away any nervousness I might have had. I could feel that I was in fact enjoying the moment and this is the emotion that I remember the most.”
Japan’s play throughout Germany 2011 was marked by composure and coolness under pressure. It has since become a well-known trademark of Japanese women’s football across all their age groups. Kumagai says that her equanimity and self-control remained even during the shoot-out. “Throughout the whole World Cup, the atmosphere was positive and relaxed,” Kumagai said. “There was a really positive mood within the team, including all the coaches.”
Shannon Boxx, Carli Lloyd and Tobin Heath all missed from USA’s opening three attempts, and Yuki Nagasato did likewise with Japan’s second spot-kick. Abby Wambach gave the Stars and Stripes’ faint hope, but that merely set up Kumagai for her special moment. And she delivered emphatically, hitting hard and true into the roof of the net. “The most important thing for me is to kick the ball without hesitation, using as much power as possible,” Kumagai said in regards to her penalty technique.
It is a technique which has continued to reap rich dividends. Earlier this year, Kumagai struck the winning penalty, as Lyon recorded a shoot-out victory over Wolfsburg in the UEFA Women’s Champions League final. “I felt the same way as I did in the World Cup final, that is to enjoy the moment,” she said. “I wasn't nervous at all during the Champions League final. That experience from 2011 was huge and it really helped me.”