One plays for the redemption and the glory for a nation who has not seen a championship in over a decade.
The other plays for the hope and collective healing of a nation that has seen unimaginable devastation.
Both are teams of destiny. And both on the precipice of the ultimate prize: a Women’s World Cup title.
In a matchup few, if any, had foreseen, the No. 1 women’s soccer team in the world, the United States, will face off against the fledgling underdog team, Japan. In a Women’s World Cup where many believed that two-time defending champion, and host nation, Germany would prevail again, USA and Japan are, surprisingly, the two teams left standing.
The Japanese women were not at all expected to be here. After all, their history in the tournament has not been kind to them. While they have qualified for every Women’s World Cup since 1991, Nadeshiko Japan had only won three matches before 2011, and made it past the group stage only once (1995). While they were considered sentimental favorites as a nation recovering from the Tōhoku Earthquake and Tsunami in April of this year, it was understandable that they would not create much noise.
However, they overcame the devastating adversity and played admirably through their group. On the strength of budding Japanese superstar Homare Sawa, the Japanese women won matches against New Zealand and Mexico, before losing their final group match against England, 0-2. For their efforts, they advanced to the next round as the runner-up in Group B … against the heavily-favored German National team. History was not on their side – in three Women’s World Cup matches against Germany, Nadeshiko Japan had yet to score a goal against them, and had lost seven of eight against the Germans in international play.
None of that seemed to matter in their quarterfinal match. Striker Karina Maruyama angled a shot from Sawa to net the game-winning goal in the 108th minute, to the shock and dismay of the host nation, and their fans. It would be the only goal scored in a 1-0 upset victory for the Japanese. Riding off of that amazing victory, they proceeded to dominate an undefeated Swedish team, 3-1, in the WWC Semifinals. In an unpredictable tournament, Nadeshiko Japan had propelled themselves from sentimental favorite to, in the eyes of some – including their home nation, favorites to win it all.
What stands in their way is a powerhouse American team that has seen their share of adversity on the pitch in the past four years. Lest we forget, despite their top ranking in the international standings, the US Women’s soccer team has not won a Women’s World Cup title since their scintillating penalty kick victory against China in 1999. No one can forget Brandi Chastain’s spontaneous celebration in the Los Angeles Coliseum 12 years ago, as the women’s national team put themselves in the forefront of American sport. Unfair or not, the team has been living in the shadow of 1999 ever since.
Their World Cup drought came to a head in 2007, after embarrassing 4-0 loss in a semifinal match vs. Brazil. Then-head coach Greg Ryan’s infamous decision to replace goalie Hope Solo with Briana Scurry prompted the fiery stopper to lay a verbal rampage on her coach and teammate. While she tried taking back her tirade, Solo’s words went down in women’s soccer infamy.
The aftermath left Greg Ryan without a job, after his lineup blunder in China. He was replaced by Pia Sundhage soon thereafter. Furthermore, despite backlash as a result of her comments, and lingering injuries through the years, Solo was considered the unquestioned starting goalie for the 2011 National team. The moves paid off for the US Women’s National team, as it was Sundhage’s coaching and Solo’s work at goal that got the US the Olympic gold medal in 2008, avenging their loss to Brazil a year earlier in the Gold Medal game.
Fast-forward to this year’s Women’s World Cup. With Solo, Sundhage, and rising superstar Abby Wambach at the helm, the Americans cruised through their first two group matches against North Korea (2-0) and Colombia (3-0). Up until that point, Solo, considered the best goalkeeper in the world, had stretched her scoreless streak to 780 minutes.
That was until the Americans ran into an unpredictably skilled Swedish team. Solo gave up two goals in a 2-1 loss that, unfortunately, pitted them against a revitalized favorite in the Brazilian national team, in the quarterfinal round. Led by fiery striker Marta, the women of Brazil were a force to be reckoned with, going 3-0 in group play.
The Americans’ steely resolve was tested late in the match, as a couple of controversial calls gave the Brazilians two penalty kick chances and a one-woman advantage. A red card in the second half put down Rachael Buehler for the remainder of the match, and forced the Americans to play a man down for over 55 minutes. Tied 1-1 going into extra time, Marta scored the second of her two goals, giving the Brazilians the lead in the 92nd minute. With little help and the clock reaching stoppage time, the Americans seemed finished.
Then, Abby Wambach headed her way into Women’s World Cup history.
Wambach headed a cross from Megan Rapinoe to score the equalizer in the 122nd minute – the latest goal scored in the history of the tournament. It was a moment that will live in American soccer lore for all time. In the ensuing penalty kick shootout, Solo blocked a straight shot from Daiane, and the Americans never missed to advance, 5-3.
In their semifinal match against France, their momentum ground to a halt as their rhythm seemed off with a 1-1 tie well into the second half. Two goals by Wambach and Alex Morgan sealed their place in the final. For veterans like Wambach, Solo, and team captain Christie Rampone, it was a moment they had been waiting for since that fateful day in China four years ago.
Two teams. One prize. Who will win? The showdown is this Sunday. Two proud nations will be watching.