Japan celebrate unlikely World Cup triumph

When football means more than just a trophy

Japan celebrate unlikely World Cup triumph
Photography: Carmen Jaspersen/DPA/PA Images

When Homare Sawa lifted the World Cup trophy at the Commerzbank-Arena in Frankfurt in July 2011, she wasn’t just celebrating for herself and her teammates but for all of Japan.

Three months before Nadeshiko Japan were due to kick-off their World Cup campaign against New Zealand, the Tōhoku earthquake and ensuing tsunami brought the country to its knees as the world looked on aghast. There were questions about whether the team should even travel to Germany with the country in such poor shape, but travel they did and following two dismal World Cup showings in 2003 and 2007, the national team shocked at every turn. 

At home, Japan continued to rebuild and recover after the natural disaster that had claimed the lives of over 19,000. In Germany, Nadeshiko Japan thrived seeing off the reigning champions in their own backyard before beating Sweden to reach the final. Simply refusing to be beaten, the unfavourited team took the United States from 90 minutes to 120, then to penalties, eventually winning from 12 yards. The image of one of Japan’s greatest-ever players raising the iconic trophy is not just one of sporting achievement but a reminder of the triumph of the human spirit.

First published 8 October 2019