One of my favourite quotes of all time was said by the late Nelson Mandela.
He stated, “Sport has the power to unite people in a way that little else does…sport can create hope when there once was only despair.” The last part of that quote couldn’t be more accurate and moving, and through football, was proven again just a few years ago at the Women’s World Cup.
Just months before the 2011 World Cup in Germany, disaster struck Japan and Mandela’s quote was put to the test. A magnitude nine earthquake occurred off the coast of Tohoku on a calm Friday afternoon and triggered Tsunami waves that reached astonishing heights of 128 feet. It shattered records becoming the most powerful earthquake to hit Japan and the fourth largest in the world since records began in 1900. However, it wasn’t just the records it shattered, it did so both literally and figuratively to the country as well.
As of October 2015, the casualty rates are listed near 16,000 with over 200,000 residents still living in temporary housing after four years. Certainly, one would think that a disaster of this size would be near impossible to overcome. However, that’s where the beautiful game came into play. Football created hope, where there once was only despair.
Coming into the World Cup Japan were already relative underdogs, certainly incapable of winning a tournament that included powerhouses such as Germany, Brazil and the U.S. Some experts didn’t even have the country making the Semi-Finals. At one point after the tragic earthquake, there was even talk of whether the team would make the trip to compete in the event or not. This wasn’t the kind of team, nor the country, that gives up though. They made the trip to Germany and proved that they as a country, not just a team, wouldn’t be knocked down.
Japan had a relatively easy group to compete in, yet still had to fight throughout the tournament. Which, given the circumstances, was it ever going to be anything different? Finishing second in the group behind England, pitted the team against the reigning back-to-back champions Germany in the Quarter-Finals. Not exactly the team you want to see in the first knock-out stage to say the least.
Yet, despite the disorder happening back home, the Japan team seemed unfazed of the tall task ahead of them. Keeping calm and collected, Japan made it into extra time against the favourites and then substitute forward Karina Maruyama brought an entire country to their feet scoring the game-winning goal in the 108th minute. At the time, it was the latest ever in a Women’s World Cup match and it was stunningly decisive, fitting for a team that had been fighting for months longer than any other team in the tournament.
Just like that, Japan was in the headlines again, but this time was different. This time, the world was celebrating.
Having just completed one of biggest upsets in the history of the tournament, Japan took their incredible story through the Semi-Finals with ease, knocking off Sweden with a 3-1 victory thanks to two late goals by Nahomi Kawasumi and Homare Sawa and were off to Frankfurt for the finals.
All of a sudden, a country that was so recently stuck in desolation now had a chance to be world champions. As fate would have it, however, they would have to battle yet again.
Perhaps an even steeper challenge than the Germany match awaited Nadeshiko as they headed into Commerzbank-Arena on finals night. In Japan’s first ever finals appearance in a major tournament they had the USWNT waiting for them, led by Abby Wambach, who at the time was in the prime of her career. The Stars and Stripes were also the holders of 25 straight matches in which they were unbeaten against Japan. Needless to say, it wasn’t looking overly promising for Japan. Although, something that captain Homare Sawa said before the tournament even began seemed to stick with the team that night in Germany. Sawa had told ESPNW in May, just a month before the World Cup “In Japan, I – and we – try to show our attitude of ‘Never give up’.”
In the 81st minute, down 1-0 in the final, that attitude showed up when Japan needed it most. After having been heavily outplayed almost the entire match and surviving two U.S. shots that hit the posts and then a U.S. goal in the 68th, Japan levelled the match from a poor clearance that fell right to the feet Aya Miyama. Perhaps it was their ‘never give up’ attitude or maybe it was destiny, but either way, Japan was alive once again.
As the match went into extra time, Japan were challenged once more as a picturesque Wambach header seemed to all but win it for the U.S.
With three minutes left in extra time, the U.S. was coasting to victory, on to winning their third World Cup title. Then, off a Japan corner kick, Sawa acted on her own words and didn’t give up. Slotting one home past Hope Solo, the game was suddenly tied and heading to penalties.
In front of a crowd of 48,817, the U.S. failed to score on their first three attempts and Japan made the most of the mistakes, winning 3-1 on penalties. The first ever World Cup victory for the country, just months after disaster had struck their homeland. Rising from the bottom, fighting the whole way, Japan was no longer a country in despair.
They were World Champions and a country of hope.
After the World Cup, I believe then Prime Minister of Japan said it best when he stated “The Nadeshiko Japan, as shown in their name, demonstrated the wonder of Japanese women to the rest of the world, and brought courage in the face of difficulties and fresh hope to the victims of the East Japan earthquake who are pulling their lives back together, as well as to the nation as a whole.”
For as long as I’ve been alive, I’ve never seen nor heard of a story or experience such as Japan and the 2011 World Cup victory. Truly inspired by anguish, one country rose from the ashes and became champions of the World within months and had an entire planet united as one.