England Learns 'Football Is Cruel' In Heartbreaking Loss To Japan

EDMONTON, Alberta -- Mark Sampson stood in the middle of the turf, arms around Laura Bassett, head in a million places. What could he say? It was the best 91 minutes England could've drawn up, and the worst minute he could've imagined. The game was tied, the clock was winding closer to penalty kicks, and Bassett tried to clear a ball that ended up bouncing into England's goal. There was nothing to say. So Sampson just let her bury her head into his chest and sob.

England, which basically heard, in so many words, that it had no business hanging with Japan in the Women's World Cup semifinals, outplayed the defending champs but fell 2-1 on the own goal with about a minute left in stoppage time. A stunned Commonwealth Stadium crowd of 31,467 watched Japan earn a Sunday date in Vancouver to play the United States, just as the Americans had hoped and just as coach Norio Sasaki expected just 24 hours earlier when he said that his Japanese team was superior to England.

Sasaki didn't really back down from that assertion late Wednesday, but it was clear that England, the world's No. 6-ranked team that was making its first trip to the semifinals, took the fourth-ranked Japanese by surprise. The Lionesses outshot Japan 15-7 and had numerous chances to take the lead in the second half, thwarted by crossbars, just-wide kicks and the diving mitts of Japanese goalkeeper Ayumi Kaihori.

"The English players were moving more than we expected," Sasaki said through a translator. "Their timing of reaction was very good and we couldn't really disrupt their rhythm, but the biggest threat was their set plays.

"There were some moments where England could've scored, but that's the game of soccer. And at the end, we were able to obtain such a dramatic goal. The own goal was not really [their] goal because we created the situation. We had such a strong counterattack."

Bassett, one of the team's best defenders, desperately lunged at a bouncing cross from Nahomi Kawasumi in the penalty box in the hopes of clearing it and living to see penalty kicks. But the ball sailed over goalkeeper Karen Bardsley, hit the inside of the crossbar and then bounced downward inside the goal line. It was the latest own goal (92nd minute) in Women's World Cup history.

The Lionesses sprawled on the ground and hung their heads in disbelief, but then, one by one, found Bassett to console her. She was inconsolable. It wasn't supposed to end this way, not after they captivated their country with this unexpected run. It was the first time in 25 years a team from the country had made it to the semifinals of the World Cup (the men did it in 1990), and there they were, getting well wishes from Prince William and truly believing they belonged on the same stage with Japan.

Back home, fans started believing it, too. The game didn't start until midnight in the U.K., but much of the country stayed up late in the hopes that the Lionesses could pull out one more victory.

By the start of the first half, the England women were one of the top four topics trending on Twitter. By the end of the game, their plight had gone worldwide.

Sampson was incredulous in the postgame news conference when he was asked how the tabloids back home will treat Bassett, a 31-year-old who has been one of the team's best players throughout the tournament.

"What are they going to say?" Sampson said. "She was outstanding over the course of the tournament, and a deflection goes off her knee and goes into the goal in the last minute? Nah. Our media will be behind Laura Bassett. When she comes home, she'll be a hero. There were moments in that game today where she stood up, she stopped an incredibly strong scoring force. But we'll be there for her. Whatever she needs, this team will be there for her."

Japan found itself locked in a 1-1 tie just before halftime after both teams exchanged penalty kicks on rather questionable calls. England's shot appeared to be the product of a barely touched player who fell in the box; Japan's foul looked to have occurred outside the box.

Sampson, possibly motivated by Sasaki's comments the day before about England, told his players before the game that they had to put in "superhuman" performances Wednesday night to have a chance. Any loose ball had to have white jersey on it, he said.

For a little more than 90 minutes, they seemingly played outside their means. And Japan did not look like the juggernaut it has become. Sasaki chalked it up to his team's mental game. He sensed his squad was tense and afraid to make mistakes Wednesday.

But regardless of whether they were on top of their game against England, the Japanese are now exactly where they wanted to be: in Vancouver on Sunday for the championship against the United States. It's a rematch of the 2011 World Cup, which Japan won on penalty kicks. The Americans beat Japan in the Olympics in 2012.

Sasaki wonders if his team was already thinking about the Americans on Wednesday.

"Today, we couldn't really stick to our plan," Sasaki said. "But in the finals against the United States, we can go in with refreshed thinking. In 2011, both teams had a wonderful game for the final and for women's football in the world. I hope we'll have a wonderful game like we did in 2011, and I'll be very happy."

England will try to regroup for the third-place game against Germany on Saturday here in Edmonton. Sampson said he and his players were the only ones who believed they could beat Japan and go to Vancouver and win the championship. For 91 minutes Wednesday, anything seemed possible.

"No failure on our behalf," Sampson said. "This team has overachieved. They have achieved things that no one ever thought they could achieve, and we all saw the game today. Look, football is cruel. Moments change matches. And sometimes, not always the best team wins. Sometimes, you don't get what you deserve.

"In my book, they will never be a failure."