Gracious Losers: Japan’s Women Celebrate Silver in a Soccer Rematch with the U.S.

Despite a stream of tears in the minutes after the match ended, the Japanese team soon acted as if they had won silver, not lost the gold

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Lefteris Pitarakis / AP

From left, Japan's Karina Maruyama, Homare Sawa and Asuna Tanaka react after losing the women's soccer gold-medal match against the U.S at the Olympics in London on Aug. 9, 2012

When in doubt, bow. On Aug. 9, the Japanese women’s squad succumbed to the Americans in the Olympic soccer finals 2-1. But on the victory podium, as they collected their silver medals, the Japanese grinned, waved and bobbed their heads respectfully to the near-capacity crowd assembled at London’s hallowed Wembley Stadium. Then they raised their arms in unison and danced an impromptu jig. What else was there to do? Another bow, of course.

Despite a stream of tears in the minutes after the match ended, the Japanese team soon acted as if they had won silver, not lost the gold. Certainly, second place tops Japan’s performance four years ago in Beijing, when they came in fourth. But the Japanese are also the reigning World Cup champions, having prevailed over the Americans in a penalty-kick shootout last year. That nail-biter Japanese victory came as the country was still reeling from the physical, emotional and nuclear fallout of the March 11 tsunami, earthquake and nuclear meltdown. Two members of the World Cup (and London Olympic) squad, defender Aya Sameshima and substitute Karina Maruyama, had even worked for Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO), the Japanese utility firm that ran the fated Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. (TEPCO owned a nonprofessional women’s football team, and some of its players earned their keep working at the plant, playing soccer during their off-hours.)

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For a country that desperately needed a lift, the World Cup performance of the women’s team, which has lived in the shadow of the male squad for so long, was massive. Even Japan’s then Prime Minister Naoto Kan was moved. “Japan’s play made me think I should not give up, but must hold out as long as there are things that need to be done,” said Kan.

That indomitable Japanese spirit shone at Wembley on Thursday night. The U.S.’s Carli Lloyd scored early on, heading the ball home in the eighth minute. She doubled her team’s lead in the 54th minute with a glorious distance shot. The Japanese had never been behind the entire tournament, and they had tended to allow their opponents to hog the ball. Not this time. The Japanese controlled the ball with precision and panache for nearly 60% of the match. But the barrage of Japanese attacks bounced off the woodwork. Finally, in the 63rd minute, Yuki Ogimi, who had scored three of Japan’s four previous goals in London, tapped the ball into the goal after the American defense was left scrambling in the penalty area. “Soccer is the kind of game when you never know what will happen until the very end,” said Japan’s captain Aya Miyama, after the match. “So we never gave up and always tried to go for the shot.” But the equalizer never materialized, and the Americans were crowned Olympic champions for the third time in a row.

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Both Japan and the U.S. enjoyed raucous support from the crowd, stars and stripes sharing space with the rising sun, as 80,203 football fans electrified the Wembley stands. It was the largest crowd to ever gather for an Olympic women’s soccer match. There was little of the kind of acrimony that had marred the U.S.-Canada semifinal. After the match, I went to talk to Japanese fans, expecting to hear expressions of disappointment or even frustration over a seeming hand ball by Tobin Heath that was not called. But I couldn’t find anyone who professed regret at the outcome. “It’s so nice to be here,” said Mirai Kudo, a Japanese fan from Aomori prefecture, who had a rising sun painted on each cheek. “There are so many Japanese here cheering, and I am really enjoying the team spirit.” The loudspeaker burst out with Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA,” and Kudo bounced right along.

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In the postmatch press conference, Japan’s coach Norio Sasaki was asked about that hand-ball incident. It was the perfect opportunity to snipe, but he declined. “Maybe at that moment, I thought, hey, I wonder if that’s something,” he said. “But the moment passed, and I respected the judgment of the referee.”

As of the evening of Aug. 9, Japan had won just five gold medals at the London Games. Since Athens, when they scored 16 gold medals, the Japanese have been sliding down an Olympic slope. Beijing elicited nine gold medals, seven fewer than the previous Games. In London, swimming, a traditional strong suit, was a bust for the Japanese. Judo, the only Japanese-invented sport at the Games, only brought one gold medal. There are few other golden opportunities left for the Japanese in London, so it’s possible that five is as good as they’re going to get.

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Of those five gold medals, four have been courtesy of women. Earlier in the day that the Japanese female footballers won silver, Japan claimed its third women’s wrestling gold of the Olympics, when Saori Yoshida captured the 55-kg title. It was the nine-time world champion’s third-straight Olympic gold, a hat trick also accomplished a day earlier by fellow Japanese Kaori Icho in the 63-kg weight category. Given that Olympic women’s wrestling only debuted in 2004, the Japanese pair has been utterly dominant.

For a nation that perennially undervalues women in the workplace, it’s worth noting how essential Japan’s women have been in bringing gold medals home. The country has lost two decades to economic stagnation and political atrophy. Imagine if women were more involved in shaping the country’s future.

And in case you were wondering, how did the Japanese men’s soccer team do at the Games? Well, they were knocked out in the semifinals by Mexico. There’s no question that Japan’s women came into the Olympics a more successful squad. So why did the women’s team travel to London by economy class, while the men’s team flew business on the same flight? “Our women are very strong,” said a male Japanese journalist, as we waited to get postmatch impressions from the women’s soccer squad. “Sometimes we only realize it at the Olympics.”

For Sasaki, who has helmed the women’s team for four years, his squad’s strength is a given. Japan’s female footballers are known as the Nadeshiko, after a frilly but hardy alpine flower. What was the legacy of his team, the coach was asked after its silver-medal performance? “It’s teamwork,” he replied. “We have played with a bright and open attitude, with justice, with a sense of fair play, with a respect for our opponents. Even though it’s a team of small girls, they are very strong. That shows the beauty of Japanese women.”

MORE: The Most Exciting Team in American Sports: Women’s Soccer

9 comments
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flux8
flux8

The true spirit of the Olympics are often better exemplified by the "losers".  Examples: Rebecca Adlington, Oscar Pistorius, Liu Xiang, Sam Mikulak, and of course, the Japanese women's soccer team.  Long after these games are over, these are the competitors I will remember and the examples I most want my children to learn from. Anyone can enjoy success, but it's far more important to be able to handle disappointment with grace and dignity.

ComplyGuy
ComplyGuy

A great effort by both teams, with each staying true to their chosen style, for better or worse (why can't/won't the American team play a possession game to protect a lead?). I have even greater respect for the Japanese team now than I had before the game. Despite the (obvious on TV) handball, they shed a few tears in the immediate aftermath and then showed unbelievable acceptance, grace and team spirit thereafter. Despite my undying respect for and awe of the American team and their tremendous talent and strength, I can only hope that, in the future, the Americans can be as graceful in winning AND losing as the Japanese were in losing... Nice going to both sides!

bojimbo26
bojimbo26

Well done the Japanese Womens soccer team .

Luke Park
Luke Park

If the Japanese coach won't snipe, I will do it for them. It was the non call on hand ball which cost them the game. I have no idea what that German refree was watching, she is suppose to be good enough to refree the German man team. It was an easy call, it was as obvious as it's going to get. Not only Japanese should have had a penalty kick, American player could have gotten a red card, definitely a yellow card at least. Why is American soccer team getting all the breaks, who knows. Let's not even mention the game against Canada.

SoccerFanSD
SoccerFanSD

To say that a single call in the middle of the first half of a soccer match cost either team the game is a foolish assertion. Yes it was a missed call, but football is full of them and as a player and a team you have to accept when it doesn't go your way and deal with it. Japan did that, and nearly equalized, but to say that the refereeing was baised towards the Americans in any other way is also a mis-statment. Additionally the Canadian team enjoyed far more breaks in the game than the USA, and at least one of their players was lucky not to be sent off for reckless challenges. The fact is the Canadian goalkeeper violated a rule persistently throughout the match specifically designed to prevent time wasting, and she got called for it. Regardless of how often the rule is enforced it is a rule and the call was a viable one. The handball call and subsequent penalty kick were also warranted so they don't have anything to complain about.

G Barry Stewart
G Barry Stewart

You tell the truth, Luke. A gold won on nothing but honourable play would be truly deserved. I score it as a 3-2 win for Japan.

Sandro Navas
Sandro Navas

Here we go again!

The Americans can't do no right, Morons always find something to whine about. This is the way soccer has been officiated since day one. When you have a zillion super high speed cameras all over the stadium, sure, you will see things that the referee can't.Soccer need to move into the 21st century when it comes to equipment to help the referees.So far nobody seem to be interested. Players, coaches and Fifa oficials.So whiners will have a field day next time around, and the next time around.

Godzilla1960
Godzilla1960

As an American who was cheering on our home team I was also proud of the Japanese women.  They are a team of small women with big fight.  They obviously have earned the respect of the American team with their grit, determination, and sense of honor and fair play.

Omedetoo Gozaimasu!

funnyboy911
funnyboy911

Why don't you write something about China. I sure China did something to make the japanese team lose, half-nip. Bwahhhahahahahahahaah


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