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Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Japan Needed the World Cup Win Over the U.S., They Deserved it

On March 11th, the entire world witnessed how the unexpected can tear a country to pieces. Four months later, it also saw how the unexpected can help knit it back together.

This past spring, Japan was subjected to one of the worst natural disasters the planet has known. A 9.0 earthquake shook the foundations of one of the most developed countries in the world, unleashing a maelstrom of chaos that was exacerbated by a tsunami that cruelly wrought destruction on anything and everything that wasn’t already reduced to rubble. The resulting chaos exacted a toll of casualties that still continues to increase in number. Families were torn apart. Lives were forever changed.

Stories continue to be told of survivors desperately searching the once bustling streets in areas now emptied out by the devastation. Parents combing through the debris in hopes that a fleeting miracle will give them back their lost children. Orphaned kids hoping for one last chance that they will see their loved ones walk through the door despite the growing odds to the contrary. There was a story last week told in the USA Today of a firefighter still seeking his wife and daughter amid the destroyed buildings in his hometown, searching through every creek, crack and crevice for their whereabouts. Logic tells any rational person that they are probably gone with the many others that perished on that awful March day. But, such reasoning falls woefully short in explaining why such a tragedy has befallen these people. Tell that to this father, who is convinced he will find his family somewhere, at least if nothing else but to bring closure to the desolation. Stories like this one are more the norm around the battered nation rather than the exception.

Sports function in many different ways in society. Sure, the entertainment value, the drama, and the story lines all have their places. Sports have often been referred to as the “toy store” for all the folks who have the privilege to work in the profession in some capacity: a game loved growing up as a child becomes the career that others wish they had. They also stand as a stark reminder of their place on the totem pole when played out against a backdrop of world events. Certainly, no one will discount the symbolism of an event like the 1980 “Miracle on Ice.” Cold War drama was played out on an ice hockey rink between the US and USSR, the two principals in the conflict. Two ideologies. Two countries at political loggerheads with one another. The United States’ triumph was seen as a victory in more ways than one, and served to put a dent in the Soviet Union’s notion of superiority. Sports sometimes are simply the setting. The drama that ensues is transcendent.

But sports can also serve as a figurative balm to heal wounds. Americans remember how baseball helped to heal the wounds in 2001 after one of the greatest tragedies this country has ever known. A foreign invader attacked our very notion of security, shaking this country at its very core. When the great Jack Buck reached into his pocket to read aloud his now-famous poem on the first night that baseball returned, along with some semblance of normalcy, the healing process had begun. “Should we be here,” Buck asked a packed Busch Stadium crowd before answering with a resounding “Yes.”

Far be it for me or any other commentator to offer that a sporting event can be the answer to the world’s problems. What it does provide, in as little a way as it can, is a sense of unity, perhaps a refuge: the feeling that things will get better. If sports can return amidst the clamor, then maybe the healing can begin. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was once pressed with a decision on whether to cancel the NFL season during World War II. He made his choice not to do so: That, in the broad scheme of things, this simple game is what people needed. It was what America needed.

One of the toughest things about sports is that in a championship game, two qualified foes meet, but only one can win. The other must leave the field of play knowing that they got to the precipice of glory only to fall just short. This past weekend’s Women’s World Cup final was certainly evidence of that.

Japan’s now-beloved Nadeshiko certainly weren’t among the favorites in the tournament, a team from Asia never having won the Women’s World Cup. The likes of the United States, a two-time winner, and twice-reigning champion Germany, along with Brazil (a runner-up in 2007) were among the predetermined favorites to win it all. But here was Japan, a country not really talked about at the start of the tournament as being a title contender, taking on the giants in the sport and finding a way to sustain the hopes of their torn country. Advancing out of group stage, they knocked out the hosts, Germany, on their home turf with a dramatic overtime goal. They dispensed of the Swedes, who earlier had beaten the US in the tournament. Along the way, their head coach, Norio Sasaki, provided reminders to the team, showing clips of the devastation back home. Their path to the final was much bigger than just one player, and just the team. They truly had the hope of a nation riding on their shoulders.

In the final, they met the United States, looking to repeat their triumph from 12 years earlier. Japan was the feel-good story of the tournament, but the US had the confidence, the depth, the talent. The beginning of the game certainly illustrated this. Shot after shot rifled off by American players. One went high, the other wide, and another hit the post. When the intermission came with a 0-0 score line on the board, the confidence of the Japanese ladies was palpable.

The United States broke through first, taking a 1-0 lead after 69 minutes. Surely, had Japan made it this far but lost the match, they would have not been faulted. After all, they had overachieved for the first three weeks of the tournament. But the images of destruction that the team viewed after each triumph no doubt flashed through the minds of each player on Sunday, especially with each waning moment. Down a goal. The farmer whose livelihood was literally washed away in a wall of seawater. Aya Miyama answered back in the 81st minute.

The game went to overtime. Japan — winless in their women’s soccer history against the U.S. — had weathered another storm at the World Cup. Abby Wambach’s goal for the United States looked like the clincher. 104 minutes had been played. A team getting by emotion and a nation’s newfound optimism had seemingly begun to run out of gas. The U.S. led 2-1. Legions of broken families and crushed dreams. With about three minutes of overtime remaining, yet another spectacle was borne out of the resilience of the Nadeshiko. A loose ball trickled away, just beyond the reach of the stalwart American defenders. Homare Sawa was just able to get enough of her left foot on the ball and found the back of the net. At that moment, if only you listened closely enough, you just might have been able to make out the cheering of a nation that has known only heartbreak in recent months. If you watched on television, you saw eleven spirited players wearing the Japan uniform. But those eleven were carrying the hearts and minds of 127 million people back home.

Regulation and overtime concluded. Penalty kicks would decide the final. Five close-range shots to decide World Cup glory. A world watching. Yet another challenge for a team in its first ever final. Pictures of fear and panic on the faces of millions wading through ruin and uncertainty on a March afternoon.

It was the USA that looked worse for the wear. Shannon Boxx missed. Japan’s Aya Miyama connected. The stunned look on the face of Carli Lloyd after the second U.S. miss sailed over the crossbar, a microcosm for Japan’s opposition in the tournament. Once Saki Kumagai scored on the final shot of the Cup, a nation which has endured so many disconsolate emotions rediscovered an uplifting feeling: that of elation.

The disappointment and shock on the faces of the losing US team symbolized what every losing team on the grandest stage experiences: the feeling of what if. A bounce here, a save there. No one reporter would have immediately broached the subject to any of the distraught players, but it must have on the minds of some. How can you not be solace defeat and be moved in seeing a country that has suffered so much being able to exult in its achievement? An outstanding win in a sea of so many debilitating losses. Japan needed this. Japan deserved this.

The win was almost divine in its breadth. Watching the scenes of celebration was awe-inspiring. Scores of fans in Tokyo, who congregated on the street, in bars, and other public places took to the streets at 3:45 AM local time for the start of the match. An outshowing of support for a country that needed something to join together their collective character. Two-and-a-half hours where tears and sorrow were, for just that pleasant period of diversion, replaced with celebration and happiness. And when the final penalty kick was scored, the triumph of will and resilience against yet another dominant foe against which Japan was apparently outmatched, the spirit of an entire nation was lifted.

Though much work remains to be done on a nation that is rebuilding in every sense of the word, the Japan women’s soccer triumph gave the nation something bigger than any single goal or trophy could: hope. Hope that, in the Land of the Rising Sun, the sun will rise again.



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