18 July ~ With a kick-off time of 3.45 this morning, following the Women's World Cup final live from Frankfurt required a level of dedication among home-based supporters of the Japanese team. That support has blossomed over the last few days, however, as coach Norio Sasaki's side advanced through the group stage before sensationally eliminating champions Germany and then a strong Sweden team to reach the final against hot favourites the US.
By 6.30, the sports bars of Tokyo and community halls across the country were packed out as fans watched young defender Saki Kumagai fire her decisive penalty past American keeper Hope Solo. Japan, facing years of reconstruction after March's tsunami, had actually won the World Cup. Against a background of unrelenting misery this was something to feel good about, especially for a nation so keen to measure itself up against the rest of the world.
The kick-off time for the final was inconvenient for Japan's print media, but the triumph of the so-called Nadeshiko Japan team has been top story on news websites delighted to have something positive to write about. The sports tabloids wasted no time in bringing out Nadeshiko souvenir specials, on sale by mid-morning. One TV programme called Norio Sasaki live on air at 5am German time to discover their new national hero in a state of advanced refreshment.
Sasaki, a former player and coach with Omiya Ardija, is clearly loved by the squad members for his warmth, good humour and sensitivity. Possessed also with a quiet but ultra-determined confidence, he told his early morning interrogators that he knew Japan would win the cup after captain Homare Sawa's brilliant flicked equaliser three minutes from the end of extra time; Kumagai's spot-kick together with an exemplary display from goalkeeper Ayumi Kaihori proved him right.
Another star performer throughout the tournament was wingback Aya Sameshima, now playing in the US for Boston Breakers having found herself without a team or part-time job as a result of the tsunami. Up until March she'd been working at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant while playing semi-pro for the Tokyo Electric Power Company's club, TEPCO Mareeze. Sasaki showed his players pictures of the devastation to motivate them before the Germany game. After the final, Karina Maruyama of JEF United Ladies said she hoped the victory could act as a source of inspiration for the rebuilding of Japan. Mike Innes