Football

Comment: Japan rejoices in giant feat

Wasn't this supposed to be the summer that football forgot? A fallow year between the two cash crops of the World Cup and the European Championships?

 
Japan's giant feat - FootballReuters
 

Not a bit of it on Sunday's evidence, as we were treated to two dramatic and unexpected results, both settled by nerve-shredding and comically incompetent penalty shoot-outs.

The undoubted highlight came in Germany, where Japan provided a fittingly dramatic denouement to the Women's World Cup by upsetting the odds to defeat USA in the final, triumphing 3-1 on penalties after twice coming from behind to draw 2-2 after extra-time.

Even President Obama, watching in the White House (and striking a strangely similar pose to when he oversaw the hunt for Bin Laden) would not have begrudged Japan their victory after USA, completely unexpectedly, crumbled in the shootout, missing their first three penalties. Cheney might have been off the pitch by that point, but they still suffered from dangerous inaccuracy when pulling the trigger.

Sentiment can be overblown in football but it was impossible not to rejoice in Japan's victory, lifting as it will the spirits of a nation that has suffered so much this year.

This is not merely a glib association - left-back Aya Sameshima used to work at the Fukushima nuclear plant, while manager Norio Sasaki played images of the disaster wreaked by March's earthquake and subsequent tsunami to his players prior to their shock win over Germany in the quarter-finals.

As captain, and eventual Golden Boot winner Homare Sawa said before the final: "The time is not easy for Japan at the moment, after we had the quake. I feel grateful for being able to play football, more than I've felt in the past. I hope we can give strength and encouragement to the Japanese people back home."

It was Sawa, more than any other player on the pitch, who was the physical embodiment of Japan's huge upset in beating the two-time winners.

A small, patient midfielder, who likes to piece together flowing moves and then carve open defences with a swish of her right boot, her performance was remarkable, and her goal to make it 2-2 in extra time was worthy of winning any game. It was even reminiscent of a famous goal Roberto Mancini once scored for Lazio.

Faced with the challenge of taming giants of the game - quite literally in the case of Abby Wambach, who scored a ridiculous 50th headed goal of her international career in extra-time - and a team they had not beaten in 25 previous attempts, Japan showed deep reserves of spirit to twice come from a goal down.

They were almost overwhelmed in a first half that saw USA dominate with almost contemptuous ease, but in the end, their passing style and faith in their own ability paid rich dividends, despite the vast physical disparity between the two teams.

Here it is tempting to draw a parallel with Barcelona and Spain. Japan were the second smallest team in the tournament, so their triumph could be placed in a wider context of the recent success of tiny, possession-hungry technicians emerging victorious in an age when athletes are bigger and faster than ever before.

It is not a facile comparison. With their dedication to attractive, intricate football and love of the art of the through ball, the Nadeshiko have been called 'the Barcelona of female football'. According to our hastily-worked out calculations, their victory means Tiki-Taka is now more of a cultural force than Harry Potter and Justin Bieber combined.

But more than a victory for a particular philosophy or a style, this was a victory for a nation that needs a focal point for optimism, pride and hope after a troubled few months.

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