How Japan's 2011 Women's World Cup Team Wrote One of Sport's Greatest Stories

On this day ten years ago, the Japan women’s national football team shocked the world by defeating the United States on penalties in the 2011 Women’s World Cup final. Japan, led by their “10” Homare Sawa, was months off from experiencing one of the most catastrophic natural disasters in recorded history when an earthquake, tsunami and nuclear accident all rocked the country’s northern Tōhoku region. Their success, motivated by grief, loss, and decades of struggle, lives on as one of the most impactful narratives in all of football history.

Homare Sawa lifting the 2011 FIFA Women's World Cup trophy / Martin Rose via Getty Images

Japan's women's national football team, formed in 1981, had a quiet first two decades of existence. Like most of the countries of the Asian Football Conference (AFC), Japan struggled to make a name for themselves on the global stage. Following the debut of their women's national team in 1986, China dominated competition in Asia, with victories coinciding with the meteoric rise of football legend Sun Wen. China had a stranglehold on the Asian Football Conference for the entire decade of the 90s, winning seven straight Asian Cup titles. These wins transferred over to the global stage, as China finished silver in the 1996 Olympics and then made a World Cup final in 1999, where they were famously beaten by the United States on penalties.

On the other side of the AFC was Japan, which, in the 90’s, was a country victim of severe economic stagnation. As a result, the country experienced a massive reduction in economic support for women's football, and many of the country's women's club teams in the L. League (now known as the Nadeshiko League) folded. It was at this time that Japan experienced its joint-worst loss of all time, a 9-0 thrashing to the United States. Months later, the USA went on to win the 1999 World Cup. The year after that, the Americans went on to win gold at the 2000 Olympics, a tournament that Japan failed to qualify for through placement in the 1999 World Cup.

After 1999, China's profile faded from view in global women's football, and even started to slip within the AFC. Their seven-straight winning streak of AFC Women’s Asian Cup titles was snapped in 2001 when they lost to North Korea, and since, they have only won one more such title in 2006. AFC teams did very little for the next few World Cup cycles; the best results by any Asian team were reaching the quarterfinals in both 2003 and 2007.

It was the early 2000’s when Japan’s football federation (JFA) were unwilling to properly finance Japan's women’s leagues, and started pushing its female players to explore football outside the country. It is here where Homare Sawa, Japan’s biggest and most beloved icon in women’s football, made a name for herself away from Japan. Prior to this, Sawa had won plenty of titles in Japan’s own Nadeshiko League with Nippon TV Beleza, her first of which dating all the way back to 1991, when she was just thirteen years old.

At first, Sawa was a member of the Denver Diamonds in the USA’s semi-professional USL W-League, but she made her way back to the United States following the 1999 Women’s World Cup to experience the game on a different level. Surrounded by World Cup winners and fans that were eager to see development of the sport, she played in the newly-formed Women’s United Soccer Association (WUSA), which was the first ever professional women’s football league in the world. Sawa entered the league with the Atlanta Beat, where she stayed for three seasons, learned how the Americans played, and began curating a friendship with the USA players of that era.

24-year-old Homare Sawa with the WUSA's Atlanta Beat in 2002 / Grant Halverson via Getty Images

As indicated by the career histories of many veteran players in Japan’s 2011 Women’s World Cup squad, the JFA’s initiative to push its most talented players out to foreign leagues was successful. Among those emerging players were now-familiar names such as Aya Miyama, Yūki Nagasato, and Rumi Utsugi. This group of young starlets were all led by none other than Sawa, who was in her mid-twenties at the time. Having been a regular with the Japan national team since the early 90s, Sawa emerged after a difficult decade with Japan as a strong but gracious leader, who valued the talent and drive of the players beneath her. It is around this time that Japan’s women’s team adopted the nickname “Nadeshiko,” which doubles as the image of a pink carnation flower and a Japanese term for women representing “ideal” characteristics of kindness, humility, respect, and virtue.

Despite their improving squad, Japan, alongside other AFC teams, didn't manage to make any significant waves in the World Cup competitions of 2003 or 2007. Instead, the South American conference of CONMEBOL made their emergence in the place of the AFC. In 2007, a Brazil side featuring the relatively unknown 20-somethings of Marta, Cristiane, and Formiga took China's 1999 place as World Cup runners-up, embarrassing the USWNT with a 4-0 defeat along the way.

In that same World Cup, Japan's poor trend in major international tournaments persisted, as they were drawn into a group that included England and Germany. Although they had some considerably good results in drawing England 2-2 and losing just 2-0 to Germany, they exited the tournament in the group stage, accumulating four points.

That tournament was hosted in China, a nation with centuries worth of historical conflict with Japan. For each of Japan's three group stage matches they were booed emphatically by the Chinese fans, but at the end of their final match of the group stage against Germany, Japan held up a banner that read "ARIGATO 谢谢 CHINA." The text “ARIGATO” and “谢谢 (xièxiè)” translates to "thank you" in Japanese and Chinese, respectively. Each Japanese player held the banner as they bowed towards the Chinese crowd, who gave them a round of applause.

On a footballing level, Japan were still unable to hold their own against the larger, stronger European giants. But on a purely human level, this Japanese team showed their personality to the world, with a level of appreciation, humility, and respect that is uncharacteristic of competitive sports.

Japan's women's national football team holding up a banner with text that reads "ARIGATO 谢谢 CHINA." (Thank you China!) / Feng Li via Getty Images

With another less-than-ideal result in another major international competition, Japan turned towards the services of Norio Sasaki, the national team’s then-assistant coach and U-20’s coach. Under Sasaki’s guidance, Japan began to make a name for themselves in Asia. Every 2-3 years, the AFC hosts a regional championship called the East Asian Football Federation (EAFF) Women's Football Championship, a friendly tournament against the best of the continent. Under newly-appointed Sasaki, Japan came out dominant against every one of its opponents in the 2008 edition of the tournament, topping the table with 9 points from 3 wins. The 2008 EAFF Tournament was the Japan women's national football team's first international title in any tournament. It was a minor win in the grand scheme of things, but it carried some heavy symbolism as the beginning of their story. Japan were suddenly capable of winning, after struggling to gain footing in Asia since their inception. This momentum was not going to stop anytime soon.

In the summer were the 2008 Olympics, hosted in Beijing, which gave the EAFF champions an opportunity to prove themselves to the world on a familiar ground. Japan were faced in the third group with Norway and the United States where they escaped with four points and qualified for the knockouts. In the quarterfinals, the Japanese defeated their historic rivals China by two goals, sending them to the semifinals of a major international tournament for the first time in their history. In the semifinals, the Japanese had their fifth meeting with the United States in a major international tournament. This match was the beginning of a series of back-and-forth classics between the two sides, ending in a 4-2 goalfest that began with the USA conceding first and Japan scoring their second in the last minute of regular time. Japan were beaten by Germany in the bronze-medal match and finished fourth, but despite not medaling, they proved to themselves that they were on the right track to success.

Between the years of 2008 and 2011, Japan won two more minor titles- the 2010 EAFF and the 2010 Asian Games. Although situated mostly in the AFC, the world began to take notice of this budding Japanese side. In 2009, Aya Miyama stood out in the Women’s Professional Soccer league (WPS), and finished as the league’s assist leader with 6. In 2010, Yūki Nagasato became the first ever Asian player to win a UEFA Women's Champions League, doing so with Turbine Potsdam. Most of Japan's other internationals spent 2009 and 2010 in the Nadeshiko League, with league and cup titles being shared between Sawa's Nippon TV Beleza, Kozue Ando’s Urawa Reds, and Nahomi Kawasumi's INAC Kobe Leonessa. As a collective with the national team, they just barely qualified for the 2011 Women’s World Cup, securing a spot by defeating China in the third-place playoffs of the 2010 Women’s AFC Cup.

Four months before the beginning of the 2011 FIFA Women's World Cup, on March 11, 2011, Japan experienced a natural disaster that is now globally known as the Tōhoku earthquake. The earthquake was the largest-magnitude earthquake in the country's history and the fourth-largest since global data collection began in 1900, measuring at a 9.0 on the Richter Scale. Following the earthquake emerged a tsunami, which reached a height of 40 meters (130 feet), and affected 2,000km (~1,400 miles) of the country's coastline. Alongside the tsunami were the destruction and subsequent radioactive leaks of 3 of Japan's nuclear reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, the worst nuclear accident in the world since the Chernobyl disaster in 1986.

The earthquake had innumerable consequences for the country, and the effects of the event are still seen to this day. From final tallies determined in late 2020, the official number of lives lost that day was 15,899 people, not including 2,527 people missing and assumed dead. Such a number also does not include the people injured or permanently incapacitated, people displaced, or homes and other properties that were completely destroyed. Trillions of yen worth of damage was recorded and the eastern coasts of Japan were littered with millions of tons of debris.

While the country took time to grieve, the less-important aspects of daily Japanese life, such as sport, were cancelled or postponed. Following the earthquake, the Nadeshiko League Cup was cancelled, and the league opener was suspended for a month. One of the league's teams, TEPCO Mareeze, which was based in Fukushima, ceased operations after the earthquake. Their home stadium was converted into a response base for the disaster, and all of their players were forced to find a new team. Among those players were Japanese internationals Karina Maruyama and Aya Sameshima who had worked a second part-time job at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, which was owned by their club’s sponsor, TEPCO. At the time of the earthquake, they were training in the south of the country, and were only days off from being in the city when the power plant broke down. Soon after the earthquake, Sameshima left the country to play with the Boston Breakers in the United States, as she couldn’t return to her home.

Given everything that had happened in Japan just a few months earlier, the team was determined to play at the 2011 Women's World Cup, not for glory or for the trophy, but for the pride, happiness, and healing of their country. Their plans in doing this were very nearly derailed once they reached the quarterfinal match against the tournament hosts Germany. Germany were easily the best team in the tournament, and were favorites to win it all after going back-to-back in 2003 and 2007.

Prior to the match against Germany, manager Norio Sasaki played footage of Fukushima in the aftermath of the disaster, with the purpose of motivating the Japanese team to play for the people watching them back home. Drowned out by a crowd of thousands of Germans, Japan managed to play their way into extra time against a Birgit Prinz-less Germany. Karina Maruyama, a former employee of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, was Japan’s unlikeliest of heroes that night. Maruyama came off the bench at halftime, and in the 108th minute, found herself at the end of a gorgeous chipped through ball from Homare Sawa. She shot straight past Nadine Angerer to the far post to secure Japanese victory, their first ever win against a European team in a competitive match. With this victory, Germany failed to make it past the quarterfinals of a World Cup for the first time since 1999, and Japan were the first Asian team to advance past the quarterfinals since the same year.

Karina Maruyama scoring past Nadine Angerer in the quarterfinals of the 2011 FIFA Women's World Cup / Scott Heavey via Getty Images

Beating Sweden 3-1 in the semifinals set the Japanese up for the World Cup final, played against the towering force that is the United States women's national soccer team and their manager Pia Sundhage. Going into the match, it seemed like every force was stacked against the Japanese. They had never beaten the United States in a competitive match, and entered the final with 25 straight losses against them.

Additionally, Japan were statistically the smallest team in the tournament, with an average height of 1.62m (~5’4”). The team's collective short stature and low body weights meant that they were forced to play without the physical advantages of their North American and European opponents. If they were unable to play a physical game, the only other direction Japan could go was to play with intelligence. Like they did with Germany and Sweden, Japan's primary game plan was to outsmart the Americans, which they did. Their tight, possession-based style of football contained the American's speed and physicality. The Japanese did what they did with such finesse that they made defeating the top national team in the world look very, very easy.

Every single time the Japanese players passed the ball, it made sense. Every single play was efficient and done with planning and purpose. Every attack, every defensive action, every positioning change, were all so fine-tuned to the point of near perfection. Their style of short, tight, triangular passing most closely resembled the male FC Barcelona sides that were dominating Europe at that same time. It was unlike anything the women's game had ever seen, and it was nothing like the USWNT had ever faced. From any neutral standpoint, the United States were outplayed, through-and-through.

When the United States took their lead through a 69th minute goal from Alex Morgan, Japan scraped a goal right back ten minutes later. A miscommunication between the USA's backline caused a scramble in the box, and Aya Miyama took advantage of a poor clearance from Ali Krieger and another mistake from Rachel Buehler to tie the game 1-1. Japan's goal destroyed the USA's momentum for the rest of regular time.

The final advanced to extra time, where both sides remained goalless in the first fifteen minutes despite a barrage of USA attacks. In minute 106, Abby Wambach broke the record for all-time Women's World Cup goals, scoring her thirteenth from one of her signature headers. The match neared closer and closer to extra time, and Japan saw their window of victory closing as the seconds ticked by… at least until the USA conceded a corner.

Homare Sawa, tightly marked by Rachel Buehler, stood towards the edge of the USA's six-yard box and awaited Aya Miyama’s cross. With her back facing the goal, she ran towards Miyama’s corner service and diverted the ball behind her with the outside of her foot, scoring past Hope Solo from the inner post. Words cannot do this goal justice. Sawa had just scored one of the best, if not the single best goal in a Women's World Cup final. With just three minutes remaining in extra time, Japan’s captain rescued her country’s hopes of a World Cup win, practically eviscerating the chances of the USA being able to muster up yet a third comeback goal.

Homare Sawa's match-tying goal in the 2011 FIFA Women's World Cup Final

At the very end of extra time, Azusa Iwashimizu was handed a red card for denying a 1v1 goalscoring opportunity for Alex Morgan. That card and Sawa’s goal secured a penalty shootout for the Japanese, their last chance to shut down the United States once and for all. The USA's mental fragility was put on full display as Shannon Boxx missed her team's first penalty with a weak shot that was saved by Ayumi Kaihori. The USA then missed another through Carli Lloyd, who shot miles over the bar. Nagasato missed her penalty next, which brought slight hopes of a USA comeback into the hands of a young Tobin Heath. Japan's agile keeper stood tall against Heath, who shot a low ball to Kaihori's right, forcing a diving save to keep it out of her net. Sakaguchi's penalty put the Japanese up 2-1, which was just barely allowed in despite Hope Solo getting a touch on it. When Solo stood up, jumped, and flailed her arms in anger after conceding the penalty, it was clear that the Americans were completely mentally beaten. Wambach was the only American to convert her penalty, but it hardly compensated for the disaster of a shootout the Americans had. Her dejected jog back to the USA’s huddle meant it was in Japan’s hands to finish the job.

Japan's final penalty came down to 20-year-old defensive starlet Saki Kumagai, who stood up to the imposing figure of Hope Solo. She shared eye contact with Solo, who was attempting her classic time-wasting penalty tactics, purposefully taking longer than normal to get on her line. Kumagai, unphased, looked up at the scattered Japanese fans who stood holding their breath around the Waldstadion, knowing the joy of her country rested in her hands. A light jog, a hard shot and a top-corner finish far away from Solo's reach was what did it, and the Japanese bench cleared to run towards their heroes Kumagai and Kaihori.