The setting was Wembley, that most august of football stadiums. More than 61,000 soccer fans were in attendance to catch the Olympic women’s soccer semifinal. As a gray sky menaced rain on Monday evening, one British fan tried to explain the countries about to kick off to his young children. “That flag there, the one with the red dot, is Japan,” he said. “The red, white and blue stripes is France, see?”
The Japanese women’s squad, a full head shorter than some of their French rivals, came into the semifinals favored to win. The defending Women’s World Cup champions did not disappoint, with a 2-1 victory that guarantees them a medal in the London Games, a first for the Japanese side. On Thursday, they will play the winner of the other women’s semifinal, between the U.S. and Canada, which kicked off at 7 p.m. local time at Old Trafford, another legendary football ground. (The Japanese men’s team has also made it to the semifinals, and will play Mexico on Aug. 7.)
(MORE: U.S. Soccer’s Goal: Visit London)
The match at Wembley started out sluggishly. But 32 minutes in, Japan’s Yuki Ogimi, who plays professionally in Potsdam, Germany, and scored against the Brazilians in the Aug. 3 quarterfinal, slipped in a goal after French goalkeeper Sarah Bouhaddi mishandled the ball and left the rebound vulnerable. The pace kicked up. A few minutes into the second half, Mizuho Sakaguchi headed in Japan’s second goal. The French threatened constantly, particularly in the second half. Throughout the match, they attempted 26 shots to Japan’s four. But only one, courtesy of French substitute Eugénie Le Sommer’s fresh legs in the 76th minute, went true. Japanese goalkeeper Miho Fukumoto contended with 11 shots on goal; Bouhaddi dealt with only three.
Play turned scrappy late in the second half when Sakaguchi downed Le Sommer in the penalty area. But French midfielder Élise Bussaglia’s penalty kick floated wide. The equalizing goal never arrived. Less than a minute before the end of regulation time, Ogimi sprinted forward and faced Bouhaddi again, but this time her shot hit the post. Japan’s fans broke out into a well-choreographed cheer of “Nippon,” as the country is known in Japanese. “France attacked us really hard in the second half, but we defended well and held on,” said Sakaguchi. “We are so excited to be in the final.”
Last summer, as Japan was still reeling from the March tsunami that killed some 18,000 people, the Japanese women’s squad shocked the defending Americans by winning the World Cup on penalty kicks 3-1. It was the first time the Nadeshiko — as the Japanese squad is known, after a delicate alpine flower — had reigned supreme in the Cup final. Coming into the Olympics, however, the Japanese were knocked down by the Americans 4-1 in a warm-up contest.
At the Games themselves, the Japanese played precise — if often less than exuberant — football in their opening rounds. Their qualifying matches with Sweden and South Africa were both scoreless draws. (Against Canada, they managed a 2-1 victory.) But in the quarterfinal against Brazil, Japan finally found its footing, defeating the Samba Queens 2-0.
The French side, which was enjoying its first ever Olympic appearance, had enjoyed a magical run until Monday night. In the quarterfinals, they triumphed over the Swedes, who were considered medal contenders. “[The French] were an amazing team,” said Aya Miyama, Japan’s captain. “But we had the most passion.”
No women’s soccer team has claimed both the World Cup and Olympic titles within a two-year period. Japan could well make history at Wembley on Thursday night. The red-dot flags will surely be waving.