Nadeshiko Japan didn’t only triumph by winning the World Cup, but they also brought out my softer side…
They did it! Nadeshiko Japan are the World Champions and I would like to start this week’s column by congratulating everybody involved in Germany – from the coaches and players to backroom staff. What an incredible achievement.
Of course, I knew that they were going to win the World Cup before Saki Kumagai slammed home the historic winner though (and what an incredible strike – the perfect penalty in more ways than one).
No, I didn’t call it before the tournament, and even during the final I had my doubts. The point at which I knew that they had the cup secured, though, was in the break between extra-time and penalties.
Yes, Japan had just snatched defeat away from the US right at the death – with Homare Sawa for the second game in a row making amends for a mistake in the build-up to an opponents’ goal by scoring herself – and while the psychological impact of that certainly affected the American players, that isn’t how I knew.
The moment it became obvious, however, was as the camera panned around between the two sets of players.
The American team were stony-faced and serious-looking. They were huddled together and geeing each other up, back-slapping and high-fiving and generally looking like they had work to do, with all the troubles of the world on their minds.
The Japanese camp was exactly the opposite. The players and staff were laughing and joking, already hugging each other on a job well done and looking completely at ease; they were enjoying themselves.
It was almost as if they couldn’t quite believe they were in this position; how are we just a penalty shoot-out away from winning the World Cup? they seemed to be asking.
Then, it looked like they’d blown it. Everybody gathered into a huddle and Sasaki-kantoku leant forwards, seemingly set to offer some serious words of advice or encouragement. But no! Instead he said something (what, I don’t know) before bursting into laughter along with everybody else and sending them on their way to collect the trophy. Simple.
And simple it was. America, feeling the strain, missed their first three penalties – thanks in no small part to the bundle of energy that is Ayumi Kaihori, who repelled two of them – while the Nadeshiko eased into things with Aya Miyama slotting home one of the coolest, calmest penalties I’ve ever seen. Pressure? What pressure?
Everybody knows what happened next, and while Sawa-san has, quite rightly, been receiving most of the praise since the triumph, I’m delighted that it was Kumagai who struck the decisive penalty.
Throughout the tournament she and her central-defensive partner Azusa Iwashimizu were fantastic for Japan, throwing themselves into tackles, blocking shots and comfortable when bringing the ball forwards to start attacks.
It was Iwashimizu who headed home the winner in the Asian Games final last year, and this time too she made a crucial contribution to the win, with her foul in the last minute keeping Japan in the match.
I’m still not 100% that it was a foul, but she knew that it was worth risking the red card in order to prevent what would surely have been the winner for the US.
The full-backs Yukari Kinga and Aya Sameshima – who I’ve developed a bit of a crush on – were also superb, constantly joining the attacks and causing problems for opposition defences, while the likes of Karina Maruyama and Nahomi Kawasumi – two more crushes – who started the tournament as substitutes, also played key roles at vital times on the way to the title.
America’s goalkeeper Hope Solo said after the final that, “I truly believe that something bigger was pulling for this team. If there were any other team I could give this to it would have to be Japan. I’m happy for them and they do deserve it.”
And this something bigger was the fantastic team spirit within the squad and, most importantly, the fact that they were enjoying themselves.
As well as adding the World Cup to their trophy cabinet, the side also succeeded in helping me get a little more in touch with my feminine side; each time I see the highlights on TV I find myself tearing up.