FRANKFURT (Reuters) - Japan won the women's World Cup on Sunday for the first time, stunning the heavily favored United States 3-1 on penalties after a 2-2 draw in extra time.
Japan was in need of a good news story after the tsunami disaster which rocked the country in March and their women's soccer team delivered it in dramatic fashion despite being dominated for long spells in the final. "To our friends around the world - thank you for your support," was the simple message on a giant banner the Japanese women carried around the pitch after the match. It was hard to imagine a more thrilling finale to the three-week tournament played in packed stadiums before enthusiastic crowds around the country and in front of record television audiences of up to 16 million in Germany alone.
On Sunday, Japan fell behind in normal time and again in extra time but hit back out of the blue on both occasions before prevailing in the shootout as the top-ranked U.S. team lost all their confidence, sending a series of poor efforts at goal.
The United States were chasing a third World Cup title and dominated for long periods but wasted their many chances, especially in the first half. Their confidence crumbled when it came to the spot kicks and they missed three of their four shots while Japan converted three of four.
Shannon Boxx and Tobin Heath had their spot kicks stopped while Carli Lloyd's shot sailed high above the crossbar before Abby Wambach finally converted to keep alive U.S. hopes.
Saki Kumagai then blasted a well-placed shot high to the left over diving U.S. keeper Hope Solo to give Japan an insurmountable 3-1 lead in penalties, sparking wild celebrations with her team mates in front of the sell-out crowd of 48,837.
"We're so happy about the title and so happy that we stayed in the tournament so long," said Homare Sawa, Japan's captain who scored the second equaliser for Japan. She won the Golden Ball as the top player and Golden Boot as well. "Now we're number one," Sawa added after Japan had also upset hosts Germany and Sweden to reach the final. "We had so much self-confidence all the way to the end and we all believed in ourselves all the way. That's why we won deservedly."
It was the first time in 26 matches that Japan had prevailed against the United States, who won the World Cup title in 1991 and in 1999. The Americans had won 22 of the previous matches against Japan, with three draws. After Germany, winners of the last two World Cups in 2003 and 2006, they were the favourites to win what would have been a record third title. The Americans, cheered on in Frankfurt by many U.S. military personnel stationed in Germany, also had backing from U.S. President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who had vowed to watch Sunday's final. "It's a bitter defeat," said U.S. defender Alex Krieger. "We played well. It's very disappointing. Japan played well too. It was a great match but we didn't do it. We didn't take advantage of chances and we also made some defensive mistakes." Krieger told Germany's ARD TV she had no explanation for a defensive blunder that gave Japan their first equaliser.
"Unfortunately we gave them a gift with that goal," she said. "I didn't see what happened. But I still think we played well. We're happy that we won the silver medal. It's disappointing but I think we played well." The United States had started strongly, dominating the first half. They broke the deadlock in the 69th minute when Alex Morgan scored a stylish goal. The American, who came off the bench at halftime, outsprinted defender Yaki Kumagai on to a long ball from Megan Rapinoe and expertly fired her shot into the corner. Aya Miyama equalised in the 81st minute when she tapped in a loose ball in front of the U.S. goal after woeful defending.
Wambach's header in the 104th minute looked to have given the U.S. victory in extra time. Japan came back again, however, with the same never-say-die approach that helped them to upset defending champions and hosts Germany in the quarter-final, when Sawa scored in the 117th minute. Japan were reduced to 10 when Azusa Iwashimizu was dismissed in the 120th minute.
(Writing by Erik Kirschbaum; Editing by Clare Fallon)
(This story was refiled to fix the name of Japan captain Sawa to 'Homare')