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Japan’s women made a dream start in their quest for a first-ever Olympic soccer medal after stunning 2003 World Cup runnerup Sweden 1-0 in their Group E opener at the Athens Games on Wednesday.

News photoJapan’s women’s soccer team celebrates a goal by Eriko Arakawa during the first half of their
Olympic opener against Sweden on Wednesday in Volos, Greece. Japan won 1-0.

Striker Eriko Arakawa scored what proved to be the winner when she pounced on a mistake by Sweden goalkeeper Caroline Joensson in the 25th minute to give Eiji Ueda’s women their first three points ever in the Olympics.

Japan, ranked 13th in the world, started with purpose in sweltering conditions at Panthessaliko Stadium and Arakawa almost opened the scoring in the 11th minute when her close-range header was scrambled off the line by Frida Oestberg.

Ueda’s team continued to force the pace and made the breakthrough when ‘keeper Joensson dropped a flick-on from Mio Otani and Arakawa accepted the gift to poke the ball home from close range.

Japan should have killed the game off before the interval but former U.S.-based star Homare Sawa wasted two good chances when she struck a cute layoff from Otani wide and then mishit a through ball in the 43rd minute.

Instead, Japan was forced to soak up pressure from the fourth-ranked Swedes, who produced a much grittier performance in the second period in a bid to get back on level terms.

Hanna Ljungberg put a header wide from a decent position after 68 minutes and Malin Mostroem also went close, but Japan stood firm to claim a historic win.

“To beat Sweden is fantastic and the result shows how much progress the players have made,” a delighted Ueda said after the match.

Japan, which lost all three of its matches in their Olympic debut in Atlanta in 1996, faces Nigeria in its next match in the three-team group on Saturday.

The best eight teams in the 10-team group stage advance to the knockout phase.

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