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Japan World Cup Soccer Victory Helps Rebuild National Pride

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Jun 1, 2004
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Chants of "Nippon!" or "Japan" echoed throughout Tokyo in the early morning hours, as the Japanese women's national team twice came from behind to force a shootout that they won to capture the country's first World Cup title.

The victory, in which they outscored the United States 3-1 in the shootout after twice tying the game after falling behind by a goal, capped an emotional run for a team that upset local favorite Germany and Sweden to reach their first appearance in the World Cup finals.

In the process, they inspired a nation still reeling from its worst natural disaster and nuclear accident.

"We fought until the very end, I didn't stop running," team captain Homare Sawa said, in an interview with Japanese media. "I've been fighting to be number one for so long -- this just seems unreal to me."

Japan had not beaten the Americans in 25 previous meetings, but the team nicknamed "Nadeshiko," the Japanese word for beautiful flower, played for a purpose greater than soccer this time around.

The team dedicated the tournament to victims of the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, which killed 25,000 people. Their unlikely run lifted a wounded nation, their success temporarily knocking news about radiation scares and aftershocks, off the front pages.

In Tokyo, fans piled into sports bars at 3:45 a.m. Monday to cheer on their beloved team.

At the Footnik sports bar in Ebisu, Yukihiro Kaneta watched nervously, as Alex Morgan scored the first American goal in the 67th minute.

"They're just so good," Kaneta said "They are tougher than any opponent we've faced, for sure."

By the time Sawa flicked in a corner kick to tie the game 2-2 in the 117th minute, Kaneta was feeling a little hopeful.

The standing room only bar erupted in chants of "Japan" after the United States' Shannon Boxx missed the first kick in the shootout. Fans embraced each other while others wept quietly, after Saki Kumagai successfully kicked a goal, to secure the first World cup win for the national team.

"I can't believe what's happening. It's a miracle," Kaneta said, struggling to drown out the cheers in the room. "The Japanese team finally made it."

For Leigha Miyata, the stunning victory was symbolic of a team that has come to represent hope for a country uncertain about its future.

More than four months after the disasters, thousands of evacuees remain in shelters, while nearly 100,000 people have been displaced because of radiation concerns.

"I think this is a great starting point for the victims of the earthquake and tsunami," she said. "They'll see how far Japan can go, even with the odds stacked against them."
 

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