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Japan's World Cup win allows beaten-down nation to make a statement

TOKYO — As Japan's Saki Kumagai prepared for her decisive penalty-kick in the shootout that ended Sunday's Women's World Cup final, a wounded Asian nation held its collective breath.

For Japan, this was more than a soccer game. It was an opportunity to prove on a global stage that a country devastated four months ago by a killer earthquake, tsunami and nuclear catastrophe still possessed the heart and soul of a fierce competitor.

The dramatic final kick, defeating a taller and stronger U.S. team in a nail-biting see-saw contest, established Japan as the first Asian nation to win the women's World Cup.

But it also allowed a beaten-down nation to declare to the world that it was no longer just a victim.

"This is a big psychological lift for all of us," said Ai Asada, 26, tears in her eyes, as she celebrated the final penalty-kick at the Footnik sports bar in central Tokyo.

Nearby, Saori Shiratori was sobbing. She had traveled an hour by train to watch, and she wasn't disappointed. "At a time when things are going so bad for Japan, this news makes me so happy," she said. "We've made history."

Despite a 3:45 a.m. starting time in Japan, eager fans streamed into bars and community centers across the nation to view the final as it was being played in Frankfurt, Germany. At the Footnik, more than 100 spectators packed in several hours in advance to watch on a large movie screen.

Twice the Americans went ahead, and Asada winced and hid her face in a Japanese national team towel. Then, when Japan came back to tie it 1-1 and later, 2-2, she threw her hands into the air, screaming and hugging her boyfriend and high-fiving everyone around her.

As the penalty shootout took place, the sun was rising over Tokyo. Moments later, Kumagai sliced her kick past U.S. goalkeeper Hope Solo, giving Japan a game-ending 3-1 advantage in the extra session.

It was a new day — and the celebration was on.

"We're No. 1 in the world," said one celebrant outside the sports bar, smoking a cigarette and shaking his straw-hatted head. "It's outrageous."

The feeling was similar at the soccer stadium in Germany, where a breathless team captain Homare Sawa in a way spoke for her country's response to the March 11 earthquake and tsunami that left more than 25,000 dead or missing.

"We ran and we ran," said Sawa, who scored the goal that tied the score at 2-2 and was the tournament's top scorer with five goals. "We were exhausted but we kept running."

With each game, Japan's national calamity was never far from the players' minds.

To motivate them, coach Norio Sasaki showed photos of devastated towns along Japan's northeastern coast that were washed away by the tsunami. The players knew that each goal, each victory — over such soccer powerhouses as Sweden, Germany and, finally, the U.S., which it had not defeated in 25 previous contests — would give people back home in Japan more hope, a dash more courage.

Along with the superstars, there also were the players who served as emotional reminders of the national rebuilding task that remains back home: Team member Aya Sameshima worked at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant that was crippled by the towering tsunami.

The team — known as Nadeshiko Japan, a pink carnation signifying the psychological toughness of women — produced a banner thanking the rest of the world for its support following the recent natural disaster.

And then they played their hearts out.

Still, soccer fans wondered: Would the team fold, put up a valiant fight but in the end genuflect to the better squad?

At each critical juncture, they rose to the occasion. With just six minutes to go in regulation and the U.S. team up 1-0, ready to win their third World Cup title, the Japanese scored to even the count, sending the game into extra time, where the scenario played out again — and finally into the penalty kick stage.

At the Footnik, people watched with hope, and to some extent, disbelief.

"The U.S. was so much stronger. I thought we had a good team but I didn't think there was any chance we would win." said Tokyo resident Yuri Itoga, 36.

"When we won, I went crazy and hugged everyone I could.," she said. "This ecstatic feeling is a lot more intense because we suffered the disaster in March. It makes me feel like I can't just sit around and do nothing.

"I'm on such a high right now I don't think I can go to bed."


(Special correspondent Hall reported from Tokyo. Times staff writer Glionna reported from Seoul, South Korea.).