WEMBLEY, ENGLAND – For more than a year now, Nadeshiko Japan has brought incredible joy and excitement to its homeland and to a large number of admirers around the world.
This joy ride isn’t over.
The reigning Women’s World Cup champion booked its spot in the Olympic tournament final against the United States by fending off a number of splendid scoring chances against France en route to a drama-filled 2-1 triumph Monday evening at Wembley Stadium.
“It is amazing and I am so happy we are in the final,” Japan captain and midfielder Aya Miyama said. “We will need to get up again (for the final) and we will need to fight.”
Teammate Azusa Iwashimizu chimed in, saying, “We are so proud but we must not stop now. For us, we must win the gold and not the silver. It is important.”
An announced crowd of 61,482 attended the match, while millions more were on the edge of their couches, bar stools, beds, sofas — anywhere with a monitor — to see Nadeshiko Japan vie for a spot in the final in a match that began at 1 a.m. Japan time.
The Japan-United States gold-medal match, a rematch of last summer’s World Cup final decided by penalties, is set for 7:45 p.m. on Thursday (3:45 a.m. Friday Japan time) at Wembley. The Americans outlasted Canada in overtime to advance. Canada and France will square off in the bronze-medal match in Coventry, England, earlier in the day Thursday.
Yuki Ogimi gave Nadeshiko a 1-0 advantage in the 32nd minute and teammate Mizuho Sakaguchi added another in the 49th on a sublime header.
Japan was credited with four shots (three on goal). France took 27, including 11 on goal, but goalkeeper Miho Fukumoto was alert and sure-handed on the backline, coming up with a number of big saves. She stood her ground and secured the win for her teammates.
France’s Elise Bussaglia misfired on a penalty kick in the 78th minute that would have tied the score at 2-2. The Japanese fans, watching at Wembley and halfway around the world, let out a collective sigh of relief, and play continued. The French were persistent the rest of the way, never letting up on their counterattack against Fukumoto.
“Miho Fukumoto is a very small goalkeeper, but to me she is like a god,” Japan coach Norio Sasaki said.
Japan placed fourth at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, a result that motivated the team to work harder and get better.
“I think my players played their best and showed their (best) effort,” Sasaki said with the look of serenity on his face in the news conference room. “Since 2008, we have had an objective to win a medal at the Olympics and the attitude of the players to win this game was strong. The mental part makes the difference at this stage.”
After France had beaten Japan 2-0 in an international friendly on July 19 in Paris, Sasaki said Nadeshiko’s focal point in the match would include asking defender Saki Kumagi and Sakaguchi, a midfielder, to mark France defender Wendie Renard, who had scored a pair of goals earlier in the tournament and also tallied a goal in the friendly.
Renard was kept off the scoresheet, but was a concern throughout the match. Midfielder Louisa Necib paced the French with seven shots, taking more than the entire Japan squad. Corine Franco attempted four shots and Renard, Marie-Laure Delie and Bussaglia each had three.
After France surrendered the first goal, it was as if someone flicked on the light switch in the room. The contrast between bright lights and pitch black underscored the improved level of play for Japan’s foe after the opening minutes.
“They were better than us technically in the first 20 minutes, but after that we played a better game and we must not forget we just played against the world champions,” France coach Bruno Bini said. “It was like the (French presidential) election, 49 percent vs. 51 percent, but unfortunately we didn’t get what we want.”
Forward Kozue Ando, who entered the match as a 74th-minute substitute, said her team never had a chance to relax, never had time to lower its intensity.
“It was such a difficult game and there was a lot of suffering,” Ando said.
“They (the French) were very strong,” she added. “In the opening, we tried not to lose instead of trying to win it. France came at us and made it very difficult.”
Sarah Bouhaddi’s costly mistake in the 32nd minute led to Ogimi’s score, the France goalkeeper lost control of the ball on a Miyama free kick, and Ogimi was in the right place at the right time to boot the ball into the net.
“It was one of those things; mistakes can happen,” Bouhaddi said later. “We didn’t enjoy any luck in the whole game.”
Nine minutes into the second half, Japan, which topped Brazil 2-0 in the quarterfinals, jumped out a 2-0 advantage when Sakaguchi, taking a cross with perfect execution, floated the ball into the net and the world champion’s fans enthusiastically celebrated.
“It was a great time to score,” said Sakaguchi, who also plays for club team NTV Beleza in the domestic pro league. “We said at halftime it would be a good time to score again if we could.”
The goal gave Japan a bit of extra security, and it needed the extra cushion because France stayed aggressive and pushed the ball on the counterattack, never letting up until the final second had elapsed.
“France attacked us very hard in the second half, but we defended well and held out and we are very happy to be in the final,” Sakaguchi said.
Added Sasaki: “From the start of the game we went for the goal and when we reached 2-0 I told the players it was going to be very dangerous.”
Fukumoto was tested time and again by France. She stonewalled Necib on a diving stop. But France, however, ended its scoring drought as substitute Eugenie le Sommer sliced a shot past Fukumoto in the 76th minute.
“Japan appeared to be a lot fresher than us,” France defender Sonia Bompastor said. “They were the first to every ball, we weren’t aggressive enough. It wasn’t until we scored that we began to have that belief (that we could win the match).”
France’s confidence grew and grew and the scoring opportunities were there for the taking. In the 78th minute, all eyes were on Bussaglia after Sakaguchi tripped le Sommer in the area. Fukumoto dove to her right, anticipating the ball’s path, but the Frenchwoman’s shot sailed to her right, missing the far-right corner of the net. A golden opportunity was lost.
With Fukumoto standing tall at the other end, Japan had a chance to add a splendid late finishing tally, when Ogimi sprinted toward Bouhaddi on a 1-on-2 and rifled a shot that ricocheted off the right post in the 90th minute.
When play concluded, Japan’s players all jogged near the goal and congratulated Fukumoto for her valiant effort, a show of unity and team camaraderie that has been a prominent part of the team’s success at the World Cup and London Olympics.
Credit captain Miyama for firing her teammates up before the match.
“She gave a wonderful speech in the dressing room and it almost made me cry,” Sasaki revealed.
“The speech was her personal thoughts that she was happy to be here on this wonderful pitch with these wonderful teammates. It was the same feeling all the players had and myself. Now I am getting used to the women’s tears and I almost cried myself.”
Meanwhile, tears of bitter disappointment were shed in the France dressing room.
“I’m one of the most experienced players in this side and I really feel for Elise,” Bompastor said. “We debated whether it should be me or her taking the penalty but we decided very quickly that she should take it. Maybe that’s my mistake, but there’s nothing that I or the team can do about that now.”
Fittingly, Nadeshiko Japan planned to celebrate by going to a Japanese restaurant on Monday in London for a nice meal before making preparations to play the United States.”For the final, I would like to show a good game and empower and give courage to the Japanese people,” Sasaki said.