Until the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown of four months ago, Japan was a country known foremost for its dignity and high achievement. Its trains ran faster, its food tasted better, its athletes trained harder. As it turned out, Japan managed to build an elite women’s soccer team despite scant girls’ participation nationwide. It did so with hard work — identifying elite players early, then making them practice for 10,000 hours, or more than 21
2 hours daily over 10 years.
Many fans here didn’t know of the Women’s World Cup — or of the Japanese women’s team’s abilities — until days ago, after a quarterfinal upset of Germany. Then Japan embraced its Nadeshiko, as the women’s team is known. Its romp to the finals turned into front-page news. The prime minister talked about it. The match against the United States began at 3:45 a.m. local time, but at one Tokyo sports bar, twenty- and thirty-somethings were packed in elbow to elbow, arriving early enough to sing the country’s national anthem.
“The Japanese people,” said Toshihiro Higaki, 26, “needed something they can be proud of.”
Much as television broadcasters talked about the soccer team’s ability to inspire the country, the opposite was also true: The country inspired the soccer team. Before the team’s semifinal game, coach Norio Sasaki, during a pep talk, told his players to think about the disaster victims from the March 11 earthquake and tsunami.
The team’s recent history also gave it a strange connection with the disasters. In 2009, it held a training camp at the J-Village athletic complex in Fukushima, now a staging site for nuclear workers at the hobbled Fukushima Daiichi plant. Several players had been members of the Tepco Mareeze women’s club — a now-defunct member of the Japanese pro league. Midfielder Aya Sameshima even worked at the nuclear plant well before it became the object of the world’s anxiety.
The members of the team served as fitting ambassadors for Japan, in large part because they reflected the perseverance the country has shown in the past four months. Against the U.S. team, they trailed twice. They scored in the second half to tie it. They scored late in overtime to tie it again. After the second goal by Japanese captain Homare Sawa on a deflected corner kick, a roar in a sweltering bar rose from seven time zones away.
“Nippon!” Clap-clap-clap. “Nippon!”
At least when the match began, though, Japanese supporters tried to temper their expectations. Nadeshiko’s starters had an average height of 5-foot-4 — a distinct size disadvantage. In 25 matches against the United States, Japan had never won. And early in this match, the U.S. controlled play, pelted shots at every part of the net but the backside, and Japanese bargoers made noise mostly when anticipating something bad.