2011 world champion says team never thought they could win
Wanted to give the nation a boost following tsunami
Possession-based style implemented to counter opponents' size
It’s one of the greatest sporting stories in history. Not just in women’s football or women’s sport, but in the history of sport.
Japan had never gone past the quarter-finals of a FIFA Women’s World Cup™. More importantly, three months earlier the country had suffered one of the most devastating natural disasters in its history when an earthquake and tsunami struck.
But the Nadeshiko turned on their greatest performance in one of the most memorable matches in World Cup history, when over 10 million Japanese fans tuned in to watch Aya Miyama and her team defeat the favoured USA on penalties in the 2011 Final.
“It was a miracle,” said Miyama. “Nobody could see that ending.”
Nobody could see that ending, but there was a chance nobody would have seen the beginning either.
Midfield magician Miyama revealed she and her team-mates had debated whether playing in a World Cup was the best thing to do so soon after an event that had devastated the country.
“After the tsunami and earthquake I was talking with my team-mates as to whether it was the right thing to participate at the tournament,” she said.
“But in the end, we concluded that by actually playing football we could transmit a positive message to everyone that experienced that disaster.”
That decision falls very much in line with the Japanese mentality – putting others before one’s self. Ask Miyama about her role in the World Cup win, which saw her score in the Final and convert her penalty in the shoot-out, and she takes no credit, suggesting instead that any praise should be aimed in the team’s direction, not hers.
The FIFA Legends Squad member, who was talking in Tokyo during the latest stop of the Women’s World Cup Trophy Tour, said it took time for the moment of victory to sink in, due largely to how long the road had been to get there.
“At that moment I just felt like we had won a match, just like any match, because I had played in so many with my team-mates.
“But as time passed, it just hit me that we had become world champions.”
Japan won thousands, possibly even millions of admirers, not only for the World Cup win, but for the style they adopted to accomplish it.
If opponents came away with anything close to Japan’s possession stats, they had done well.
“Under our coach [Norio Sasaki] we worked a lot on possession, and the philosophy was not just to move the ball, but to keep the ball to win.
“We were not as big as some of the other teams, but I think they probably found it difficult because it was a new philosophy.”
Having the World Cup in Tokyo allowed Miyama to raise the trophy for the first time in eight years. A team-mate from that golden generation of players, Homare Sawa, was also able to get her hands on it as both players joined in a public talk show alongside Sasaki and current head coach, Asako Takakura.
On lifting the trophy for the first time since 2011, Miyama said: “Eight years ago I was very excited when we won, so it didn’t feel heavy. But this time I was so surprised that the trophy was quite heavy, so that was a new feeling for me.”
If current captain Saki Kumagai is to lift the trophy this year, her side will first have to overcome a group that contains England, Scotland and Argentina.
Miyama, who retired two years ago, said Takakura’s side won’t have any easy matches in their group, but is confident they can perform when they take the field in France.
"World Cups are never easy," she said. "But this team has more confidence in themselves, and I think they have a really good chance to win.”