4 January ~ As the votes are gathered for next week's Ballon d'Or award, soccer's most electable stars of 2011 are obvious. Barcelona and Lionel Messi's destruction of Santos in the Club World Championship saw the world's best manager, player and team peak in Tokyo. But Japan's involvement in the highlights of the last 12 months went a bit deeper than providing the scenery. The Women's World Cup winners of 2011 redefined "overachievement". The Nadeshiko, Japan's female international side and Asia's first ever football world champions, mock the gender-specific voting criteria with their ridiculous level of success back in June and July.
Brazil's Marta will surely go no further with her run of six consecutive stints as Women's Player of the Year but Homare Sawa - the best player, winning captain and tournament top scorer at Germany 2011 - should be threatening little Lionel's bid to equal Michel Platini's record of three straight wins in the Ballon d'Or.
Watching the Germany v Japan quarter-final in various bars along Cologne's Hohenzollernring last summer, I initially craved a home triumph for a city consumed by the match. But as the minutes ticked by and Germany dominated without scoring I slowly realised what I was witnessing. And why.
Japan's women played like Greece's men at Euro 2004. Backs to the wall against highly-favoured opposition but never in any real doubt they would score on the break or win by penalties. In Portugal seven years ago the Greek formula was a lack of expectation and the tactics of German coach Otto Rehhagel. Japan's women also had a male coach, Norio Sasaki, but not so much expectation as an acute awareness of colossal tragedy.
The March earthquake and tsunami that caused so much devastation in their homeland placed a demand on the Japan team which would have been an unwieldy burden for any side - especially one up against the reigning champions, hosts and most successful European country in women's football. But the need to alleviate the suffering caused by a natural disaster seemed particularly debilitating when shouldered by a Japanese athlete. The marathon runner Kōkichi Tsuburaya committed suicide, at age 28, because he "only" won bronze at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.
It is still not unusual for Japanese competitors who under-perform at international events to find themselves berated, to their face, by compatriot journalists. Last summer it seemed as if that cycle of sporting passion leading to human tragedy was being reversed. Germany's Federal Republic was perhaps the most apposite setting - few nations have won so much while feeling so wary of any nationalistic tendencies. When Karina Maruyama completed a brilliantly belligerent counter-attack in the 108th minute to eliminate the hosts, I downed my Kölsch in admiration.
Japan had never beaten a European side over 90 competitive minutes when they went 1-0 down to Sweden after just ten of their first ever World Cup semi-final. They came back to win 3-1. In the final they equalised against the behemoths of the women's game, the USA, with a goal nine minutes from the end of the 90 and then again three minutes from the end of extra time. Even the American media's designated personality of the tournament, goalkeeper Hope Solo, couldn't stop Japan in the penalty shoot-out. Not since Denmark at Euro 92 has football seen such a thrilling, unlikely and unmawkishly heartening run against mounting adversity.
Messi and Pep Guardiola are expected to win the individual awards in Zurich. However, Barcelona are often as horrible to hear as they are beautiful to see. Japan's victory last summer was not the most aesthetically pleasing football on the planet, but neither were Sawa's goals nor Sasaki's tactics a triumph of money masquerading as socio-political vengeance.
The Nadeshiko's victory in Germany was a signal lesson for coaches, administrators and the British media. Players work best when they are charged with providing social consolation rather than answers to nationalistic grievances. Doing so can render "winning ugly" far nicer than tiki-taka perfectionism. Alex Anderson