Kuala Lumpur: It was arguably the greatest achievement by an Asian football team when Japan won the 2011 FIFA Women’s World Cup as the Nadeshiko became the first team from the continent to be crowned global champions.
It was on this day six years ago – July 17, 2011 – that then 21-year-old Saki Kumagai powered the winning penalty into the roof of the net as Japan defeated the USA on penalties following a 2-2 draw in the final to cap the most glorious of tournaments.
A brief history
The inaugural FIFA Women’s World Cup was held in China in 1991 but it wasn’t until the sixth edition of the competition, in Germany 2011, that the East Asians managed to make it out of the group stage.
Indeed, in the first five World Cups Japan won just three games from 15, losing 10, while it was 1999 runners-up China who were the dominant Asian power. The statistics make Japan’s rise to the fore all that more remarkable.
Nadeshiko navigate group stage
After failing to go beyond the group stage in five attempts, coach Norio Sasaki’s team put themselves in a strong position to do just that after goals from Yuki Nagasato and Aya Miyama helped them to a 2-1 victory over New Zealand in their tournament opener.
Group B’s other two sides, England and Mexico, drew 1-1 meaning that Japan would take an early lead at the top of the standings.
Midfielder Homare Sawa then scored a hat-trick and Shinobu Ohno grabbed another as the Nadeshiko saw off Mexico 4-0 to advance to the quarter-finals with a game to spare.
A 2-0 reversal to England in their final group game, though, saw the English take top spot at the last as Japan were handed a daunting tie with reigning champions and hosts Germany.
The real deal
Three wins from three in the group stage indicated that Germany were at their formidable best ahead of the encounter with debutants Japan in the last eight.
The Germans had won five UEFA Women’s Championships in a row, while the best Japan had done on their continent was three runners-up spots between 1991 and 2001. On paper, it seemed a mismatch.
Goalless after 90 minutes, it was Japan that would come up with a piece of magic in extra-time as Sawa played a lovely weighted ball over the top for Karina Maruyama to fire across goal from the narrowest of angles on 108 minutes as the underdogs progressed to the last four.
Japan storm back
Next up for the Nadeshiko were Sweden, who were looking to book their place in a second final after finishing runners-up in 2003.
More than 45,000 spectators at Frankfurt’s Commerzbank-Arena saw Sweden take an early lead through Josefine Oqvist, before Nahomi Kawasumi bundled home at the back post to level the scores soon after.
Captain Sawa then headed Japan into the lead from close range on the hour and Kawasumi’s brace – a beautiful lob from 35 yards – rounded off the game four minutes later as Sasaki’s side marched on to the final.
A date with destiny
The final pitted Japan against the might of the USA, a team that had never finished lower than third in the tournament and had won the World Cup in 1991 and 1999.
After a scoreless first half, Alex Morgan put the two-time champions a goal up with just over 20 minutes to play, before a mix up in the USA defence allowed Miyama to level from close range with nine minutes remaining to force an additional 30 minutes.
But on 104 minutes Abby Wamback headed into the back of the net from six yards as the USA looked set to lift a third title, only for Japan to fight back once more as Sawa flicked home Miyama’s corner with three minutes left on the clock as the final went to penalties.
The Nadeshiko scored two of their first three penalties while the USA, who had defeated Brazil from the spot in the last four, missed all of theirs before Wambach handed them a shred of hope.
But Kumagai kept her nerve to give goalkeeper Hope Solo no chance with a superb strike from 12 yards as Japan were crowned Asia’s first champions of the world.
Joy to the people
“I didn’t know what was going to happen but the penalty kickers were very nervous and were feeling a lot of responsibility,” said coach Sasaki, captured on camera smiling as he spoke to his players before the penalty shootout.
“So I went to have a conversation with the players, it was nothing special, but the team’s mood made us laugh.
“We knew if we could win, we could give joy to the people in Japan.”
“At the time, I maybe didn’t realise what a big achievement it was. It wasn’t until we got back to Japan that I realised how big it was, what we achieved in Germany and the way all the people praised us in many ways.
“Maybe, if I’d realised how a big deal this was, I wouldn’t have been smiling before the penalty shootout!”
Once they were back in their homeland, the entire team were awarded with the People’s Honour award, only the 19th time the accolade had been bestowed since 1977.
Miyama was named 2011 AFC Women’s Player of the Year for the second time and Sasaki named 2011 AFC Coach of the Year. At the FIFA Ballon d’Or in January 2012, Sawa – the 2011 FIFA Women’s World Cup Golden Ball and Golden Boot winner – was named FIFA Women’s Player of the Year 2011 while Sasaki was named FIFA World Coach of the Year for Women’s Football.
Photos: Lagardère Sports