Back in 2007, I went to see the Japanese women's national soccer team host Mexico in the first of a 2-game playoff for the final spot in that year's World Cup. There were just over 10,000 fans at National Stadium on that March afternoon, and they witnessed a solid performance as Japan shutout the Mexicans 2-0 behind goals from Homare Sawa and Aya Miyama. Though the Nadeshiko (the team's nickname comes from a pink carnation that symbolizes the mental strength of women) lost the second leg by a goal, they advanced to the main tournament on the 3-2 aggregate score.
At the time, I was surprised how little press the team received and how few fans showed up for such an important game. Japan certainly is not lacking when it comes to supporting their national sports heroes, but the ladies just didn't seem to court respect from the nation's broadcasters, despite having the makings of a team that could challenge the world leaders (they lost 2-0 to eventual champions Germany in the tournament, finishing a strong third in their group).
Well, that's all going to change now. In the unlikely event that you missed it, the Nadeshiko won a penalty kick shootout over the USA to claim the 2011 Women's World Cup! Miyama and Sawa were again the goal scorers in a 2-2 game that Japan took with a 3-1 advantage in the shootout, claiming the first ever World Cup title for an Asian nation. I cannot begin to describe how unexpectedly happy this has made me on so many levels. Wait. Actually I can.
First, I had been following the tournament on ESPN.com and Twitter and found the vast majority of Americans were simply bandwagon fans. Of course, ESPN had to promote the event since they were showing it daily, and kudos to them for getting it to the forefront of the American sports consciousness. But most fans are in it just for the reward; they don't follow women's soccer regularly but when there's a chance for some good old U-S-A chanting to be done, suddenly they are all there, decked out in the red, white, and blue.
Look, I understand the appeal behind being a bandwagon fan. Once the hard work is over (watching the ups and downs of several regular seasons for example, or perhaps a year of qualifying), you can show up at the final post, watch a few games, and maybe even celebrate a championship! And to be fair, these events, much like the Olympics, are ideal for bandwagon jumping, when everyone can easily fit in by cheering for their country. But still, reading online comments from these new fans about America's destiny or the incredible victory over Brazil made me yearn for them to fall short. When it turned out to be Japan in the final, this yearning became even stronger. It was gratifying to read the comments of those fans, who stated that America "choked" among other outrageous observations. Make no mistake, Japan won that game with grit and determination. Real fans recognized this and made appropriate comments. For those of you who think otherwise, remember that the US already has two championships, so you just have to respect a team that has beaten you.
Beyond that bit of schadenfreude though, was the joy of witnessing a truly magnificent athletic competition. After last year's shameful performance by the Dutch in the World Cup final it was invigorating to see two teams challenge each other within the rules, playing hard, and then harder, but always respecting their opponents. A last-minute sending off was not the result of a dirty foul, and didn't change the fact that both teams gave it their all within the bounds of fair play. Japan even won the Fair Play award!
The quality of soccer was spectacular at times with some beautiful passing and sublime strikes, as well as an amazing save by Japan's keeper Ayumi Kaihori in the shootout. To compare, the Brazil/Paraguay Copa America quarter-final was being played at the same time. I would occasionally flip over to that, only to see players cursing the referee or rolling around in pain. There was none of that in the women's final, it was pure sport.
Ultimately, the most satisfying aspect of this win was to see the Japanese team come together, work hard, play smart, beat three favoured opponents, and take a completely unexpected title without worrying about payrolls, labour stoppages, or any of the other issues that mar professional sports these days. Sure, FIFA is an old-boys organization and I cringed when they handed out the medals and some officials went in for an awkward hug. But their behaviour bears not a whit on the players themselves, who could not have been more humble. During the post-game interviews, I don't think they really understood what they had accomplished. They smiled and thanked the fans, but the concept of being World Champions had yet to fully sink in. It was charming to watch.
When Sawa finally lifted the trophy, I felt an emotion that surprised me - intense pride. This is what sports is all about. I'm not Japanese but after 15 years here, I'm as close as I'm ever going to get and I like to think that I was an infinitesimal part of their success by going to that single game 4 years ago. I also like to think that attending that game precludes me from being a bandwagon fan. Both these points are open for debate however.
A National Victory?
I've seen articles talking about how this was "more than a game" for Japan, and certainly this country could use a bit of good cheer. However, I feel that news items such as this are rather selective in their reporting. The team had little media coverage during the first round, partly because games were on overnight, but also because the team just didn't rate that highly. Even after playoff upsets over Germany and Sweden, news was relatively scarce, given the level of accomplishment. An American friend commented on the tournament while we were out on Saturday night, saying she couldn't find much about it on TV - among my friends, only foreigners seemed to be talking about it. The night before the final, the lead sports story on several stations was baseball rookie Yuki Saitoh, who had pitched that day.
Even when Saki Kumagai slotted home the winning penalty, the area where I live was quiet. It was around 6:30 am on a holiday Monday and I only heard one other individual cheering (or it might have been a dog barking). I jumped around a lot but quietly, so as to not disturb my girlfriend, who was sleeping through the biggest moment in Japanese sports history.
Other areas of town with sports bars no doubt experienced a surge of happy fans on the street, but regardless, this was not the all-encompassing national win that is being portrayed in the western media. The game was on from 3:45, and perhaps people expected them to lose so they didn't bother to stay up (see the above-mentioned girlfriend). It seems like the younger generation was more supportive, but that is merely an anecdotal observation.
I don't want to take anything away from what was accomplished, but it's not going to solve the problems that affect this country. Yes, people are happy for a while, but there's still a lot of work to be done . Still, seeing those 21 ladies work for their dreams over a month should be strong motivation for the people of Japan to recognize their abilities and again become a world champion in more than just athletics.