Japan's emotional 2011 World Cup success remembered

17 Jul 2021
  • Japan won the Women's World Cup on this day in 2011 in a fairy-tale final

  • Japan captain Homare Sawa netted a late extra-time equaliser to take the game to penalties

  • USA missed three penalties in the shoot-out

"We ran and ran – we were exhausted but we kept running.”

Homare Sawa was making reference to the day, exactly a decade ago, when she captained unfancied Japan to the 2011 FIFA Women’s World Cup, snatching the trophy from the grasp of tournament favourites USA after a dramatic penalty shoot-out.

The women’s national team were not the only ones who were exhausted. The tournament came on the back of devastation in Japan following the March earthquake and tsunami, a disaster that claimed just under 20,000 lives and brought painful chaos to the country; more than 200,000 people lost their homes. Even now, more than ten years on, over 2500 people are still officially registered as missing.

Furthermore, many residents living near the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant would never return as water flooding into the plant caused radiation to leak into the surrounding area.

The pain of such a tragedy was the catalyst for the camaraderie and the unity within Norio Sasaki’s squad. Sasaki showed the players pictures and images of the chaos and heartache in their homeland during pre-match preparations. "It is certain that it motivated the whole team to win," said former defender Aya Sameshima. "However, I could not look directly at those pictures.

Before a ball was kicked in Frankfurt’s the team displayed a banner which read: "To our friends around the world – thank you for your support.”

FRANKFURT AM MAIN, GERMANY - JULY 17:  Homare Sawa of Japan and her team mates lift the trophy after winning the FIFA Women's World Cup Final match between Japan and USA at the FIFA Women's World Cup Stadium on July 17, 2011 in Frankfurt am Main, Germany.  (Photo by Lars Baron - FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images)

If the sense of being driven to success by a greater purpose was difficult to ignore, so too was it impossible to overlook the emotional relief that the victory offered the country. The image of Sawa – top scorer at the tournament with five goals – receiving the trophy and immediately taking it into a team huddle, all hands reaching out simultaneously was indicative of the team spirit and a symbol of the nation’s fledging recovery.

The first Asian country to win the Women’s World Cup, their triumph felt like a sign of Japan’s resolve.

The final itself was a fairly epic contest. USA were just three minutes away from making their own bit of history – had they triumphed they would have been the first country to life the cup three times.

Japan, though, had other ideas. Alex Morgan had given the US the lead with a little more than 20 minutes of regulation time to play and from there on, the game exploded.

Aya Miyama capitalised on a defensive mix-up to sneak in and level the game. That took the final to extra-time with the US taking the upper-hand again. Abby Wambach converted a Morgan cross before Sawa took the game to penalties with just three minutes of the game remaining.

The USA missed their first three penalties. Japan's goalkeeper, Ayumi Kaihori, saved the first from Shannon Boxx when she stuck out her foot and swatting away the third effort from Tobin Heath. In between, Carli Lloyd put her shot over the bar. Saki Kumagai’s penalty that arched well beyond the reach of celebrated USA goalkeeper Hope Solo won the tournament for Japan.

“We played that tournament not only for ourselves,” said Kaihori. “We felt we had not only the support of Japan, but also the whole world."

Her opposite number, Solo, felt the weight that Japan – who had won just three of their previous 16 Women’s World Cup matches – carried throughout the tournament.

“I truly believe that something bigger was pulling for them,” she said.

Ayumi Kaihori, Homare Sawa and head coach Norio Sasaki of Japan celebrates after winning the FIFA Women's World Cup Final match between Japan and USA at the FIFA World Cup stadium Frankfurt on July 17, 2011 in Frankfurt am Main, Germany. (Photo by Friedemann Vogel/Getty Images)