Japan is the sports story of the year

July, 22, 2011

I was sitting in Frankfurt Airport on Tuesday when one of the myriad television screens that pollute every departure gate in the world began showing the joyous scenes of the arrival in Japan of the new women's world soccer champions. Most of my fellow passengers were watching the screen and smiling. And so was I. Although it's only midsummer, the closing chapter of the sports story of the year was playing out in front of me.

As the world now knows, the Japanese team inspired to bring a modicum of happiness and pride to a nation still suffering in the wake of natural disaster and the ongoing crisis of confidence sparked throughout its previously renowned nuclear power industry. And Japan did it the hard way -- beating two-time defending champion Germany, the host nation, and the FIFA No. 1-ranked U.S. to win the World Cup. But it wasn't just the teams the Japanese beat, it was also the manner in which they did it.

In a hotel lounge one evening in Heidelberg, ESPN's incomparable Ian Darke talked to me about Japan's passing game. "They can play football," he declared. "I've been very impressed by them." This was the night before the U.S. played Colombia. I should have paid attention to the Pompey-loving sage. Japan was still a 12-1 long shot in Europe's legal betting parlors.

Like most of the Fourth Estate, I thought Japan's No. 4 ranking in the FIFA standings was highly inflated. But Japan wasn't paying attention to rankings; it was focusing on improving its technique and stamina, and making sure it kept the ball on the ground and away from the Goliaths in its midst.

I once spent a couple of years working as a feature producer covering a minor league MMA circuit. It never ceased to amaze me how brawny, bulky dudes with big-time height advantage could be taken down by wiry Brazilian jiu-jitsu masters quicker than an Englishman can weep at the phrase "penalty-kick shootout." Those Brazilian jiu-jitsu merchants knew how to play keep-away and apply the coup de grace at just the right moment. The women of Japan showed the same guile, skill, discipline and tenacity.

They not only beat the Germans in the quarterfinals, but they shut them out for 120 minutes. Incredible. They trailed Sweden in the semifinals after their talisman, Homare Sawa, coughed up her only bad pass of the tournament. And in the final, they trailed the U.S. twice, and rallied again and again to gain the tie that would force the penalty-kick decider.

After more than 30 years of penalty-kick shootouts at major tournaments around the world, I don't buy the notion that soccer's ultimate tiebreaker is a lottery. I accept the argument that's it's not the best way to decide a game, but at this point in the proceedings, it isn't going away. And the teams that win are the ones that usually prepare for that long, lonely walk from the halfway line to face the spotlight of the world.

In Germany, ESPN analyst Tony DiCicco, the head coach of the 1999 U.S. team that won the World Cup, told the story of switching Brandi Chastain to kicking penalty kicks left-footed because he knew China had scouted her so well its goalkeeper had saved her penalty kicks at the earlier Algarve Cup. While England coach Hope Powell was pathetically asking for volunteers before England's loss to France in the quarterfinals, it was clear that Japan's coach, Norio Sasaki, had scouted the U.S. against Brazil.

Kudos to Japan goalkeeper Ayumi Kaihori for making two big saves. Granted, Tobin Heath had not participated in the U.S.-Brazil shootout in the quarterfinals, but Shannon Boxx went exactly the same way as against the Brazilians, and Kaihori was there to stop it. That's talent, that's coaching, that's preparation and that's getting the job done.

And that's what Japan did throughout the knockout phase of the Women's World Cup. Add the most extraordinary backstory since the "Miracle On Ice," and without a doubt, you have the sports story of the year.


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