Monday, July 11, 2011

Japan’s Women’s Soccer Team’s Provides Inspiration For Their Demoralized Country

As I plop down on my tan, light chestnut couch and flip the channel to ESPN on my 37-inch, flat screen HD television, I felt a twinge of nervousness as the cameras displays the bright, lime-green soccer field of Arena Im Allerpark. While nightfall is just beginning to settle throughout the city of Wolfsburg, Germany; the fans are screaming in a defeaning fashion as the country’s home team walks out to midfield for opening introductions.

Alongside them standing quietly in their royal-blue uniforms, most sporting fiery crimson-red hair, the team from Japan listens discreetly to the thunderous ovation the German crowd receives just as their national anthem begins.

They understand the task ahead is immense and virtually improbable; defeat a country that is defending their back-to-back FIFA World Championship titles in front of their home nation. The German team also has an average height of five feet, eight inches, which is four inches taller than the Japanese women’s average, so the aerial attack advantage is not on the visiting team’s side.

Despite the odds stacking up against the Japanese advancing forward in the tournament, the squad will employ another adversity to combat those probabilities and inspire the team throughout the game.

The nation of Japan is still in turmoil and recovering after being hit by the biggest natural disaster ever back in mid-March. An 8.9 earthquake rattled the northern part of the country and infused a huge Tsunami to hit the Miyagi Prefecture, with over 15,000 reported deaths and still many others missing. Since the catastrophe, Japan has had to deal with containing possible nuclear outbreaks, separated families with destroyed homes, and Japanese Americans, such as myself, worried about the future of a country where our blood lines flow from.

Toppling a higher-ranked German team, who also have home field advantage, may appear far-fetched for the Japanese, but they understand that they have nothing to lose and everything to gain as they carry the burden of a battered nation on their back.

The referee blows the whistle and the game commences. The height of Germany is on display throughout the first half as crosses, set pieces, and high headers are peppered all around Japan’s goal area. The feisty Japanese rise to the occasion on each German opportunity, clearing the ball each and every moment it travels anywhere near striking distance.

At each and every build-up, I take in a deep breathe and clutch onto my couch for deal life whenever the Germans near the Japanese goal post; and I end up exhaling out a sigh of relief as they are unsuccessful to capitalize on each opportunity.

On the offensive, the Japanese employ a variety of tactics they hope will give them a better advantage going forward.

To counter the height and aggressiveness of the Germans, the Japanese occassionally swing the tides with quick counters during their opposition’s mistakes. They also use precision passing to maintain a higher percentage of ball possession when they keep the ball and. They pass, pass, and pass continuously when they are in control and maintain patience as they try to find seams in Germany’s backfield.

They also utilize a more physical approach to the game, slide tackling at the legs of the German women and imposing their will upon their opponents. They illustrate to the public that no matter what, they are going to fight from the start of the kick-off until they hear that final whistle blow.

The first half is a never-ending, tug-of-war between both squads, as it ends and the Japanese’s endurance of the home team’s best punches quiets the pro-German crowd. The fans who were waving flags and yelling enthusiastically at the start of the game are now sitting back in their seats dumbstruck as to how the game is still no score at halftime.

“Just keep it up ladies,” I continue to think to myself as I privately cheer on my Japanese team. “Keep the game close and let’s hope for a miracle.”

The second half begins and the game plan for the Germans continues the same as the first 45 minutes.

Germany continues to drop passes in front of the Japanese goal area and, despite the copious openings they create, come up empty every time. The closest situation coming at the 56th minute of the game as defender Yukari Kinga clears away a near header shot from mid-fielder Simone Laudehr.

I jump in exclamation at this moment, and nearly fall sideways onto my couch as I laugh away the possible nightmare of Germany’s near-score.

As the game progresses towards the end of regulation, I wonder which team will break through and get the shot that ends the other’s World Cup campaign. The ball is now flying furiously back and forth as one squad hopes that a crack in the back of the other’s defense will magically align when the ball crosses in.

Neither team is successful and the whistle blows for the end of regulation.

I’m on the edge of my couch and wishing that my hair was long enough to pull out. As the extra time is about to get under way, I begin to deeply ponder a question that has been enraging my mind throughout the game.

Can someone come up big for Japan?

The first fifteen minutes of the extra time starts and as the period lingers, it becomes apparent that the German’s energy is beginning to. Each moment they push forward, the crowd chimes in hoping that they can infuse life into their fatigued team. Since those chances come up sparingly, silence is now the theme filling the stands that were once raucous and boisterous at the early portions of the match.

The first fifteen minutes end and both sides switch ends. I continue to keep hope alive that the Japanese can either sneak one by the Germans to knock one in or send this into a penalty shoot out.

The second portion of the extra time initiates and the flurry of scoring attempts continues early. Both sides continue with their game plans, with the Germans hoping to score through the air and the Japanese picking their spots to retaliate with a counter.

Then, Japan takes a chance with an ambiguous cross.

In the 108th minute, Japan’s greatest player, Homare Sawa, saw an opportunity to push forward after Germany losses the ball. She gets it up field and crosses it towards the right side of the field. Somehow, the ball drops in behind the Germany defense and right in front of striker Karina Maruyama.

I begin screaming inside my head and quietly whispering to myself, “keep going, keep going”, as I am incensed by the opportunity the television is presenting before me.

Sensing a chance to keep the Germans on their heels, Maruyama dribbles the ball up along the right side of Germany’s goal. As she approaches near the scoring area, Nadine Angerer, Germany’s goalie, steps over to protect the side Maruyama is coming towards. Sensing a small window of opportunity, Maruyama sends a rolling shot to the opposite direction Angerer is going and in the direction of the far post of the goal.

A metal, clank sound pierces through the speaker on my television and the ball squibs past the line into the back of the net.


I jump up and scream “Yes!” as the Japanese begin celebrating one of the most miraculous moments in Women’s soccer history with one another in front of Germany’s goal. They are now in the lead and the crowd is in total shock that their beloved team is now nearing an early exit.

Yet, the game isn’t over just yet.

After the restart, the Germans push the ball up the field and get an opportunity almost immediately after Japan’s goal. Mid-fielder Melanie Behringer gets a leg into a shot and sends it towards the very top of the goal. Japanese goalie, Ayumi Kaihori, stretches her arm upward and nicks the ball over the cross bar.

I nearly collapse to the back of my couch with a heart attack when the shot goes up, but am given a revival thanks to Kaihori.

My eyes continue to dart back and forth from the action of the game in the middle of the television to the game clock at the top right of the screen. The minutes dwindle slower and slower, as if I were a child sitting at my desk on the last day of school, watching the clock, and waiting intently for the bell to sound for the start of summer.

Finally, the whistle blows and the game is over.

The Japanese women all clamor together for a group hug and celebrate the triumph of shocking the world by ousting the favorites.

I sit and watch in disbelief. Never did I imagine that they would move on to their first ever appearance in a Women’s World Cup Semi-Final. Yet, just like many other Japanese around the world, my wish for a miracle is answered and we are all lucky enough to see them prevail through adversity.

The women ran around the stadium with their flag flying high, as one of the greatest moments in the country’s history happens in the same year as the worst devastation the nation has ever seen.

For now, the sun can once again rise in Japan, as the Japanese Women’s national team create a glimmer of hope to a demoralized nation still trying to find a way out of their catastrophic nightmare.

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