Women's World Cup victory brings joy to Japan

Team's success in Germany seized upon by population dealing with effects of earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crisis

The Japanese have had precious little to cheer about over the past four months, so they could be forgiven for the enthusiasm with which they greeted a historic victory in a football match played in the dead of night thousands of miles and several time zones away.

The celebrations began as soon as Saki Kumagai smacked the ball high into the net to seal victory over the USA in the Women's World Cup final in Germany in the early hours of Monday morning.

Supporters filed out of bars in Tokyo and chanted the team's name on the streets in scenes reminiscent of the men's World Cup in South Africa last summer, when Japan confounded their critics and reached the knockout stage.

Many more had set their alarms in time for the 3.45am kick-off, secure in the knowledge they could watch the match live and then go back to bed, as sunrise marked the start of a national holiday.

For those who had chosen to sleep though the final, TV networks ran endless replays of the match's highlights, culminating in the nerve-jangling penalty shootout that resulted when the match, played in front of 50,000 fans at the Commerzbank-Arena in Frankfurt, ended 2-2 after extra time.

Newspapers rushed to distribute special editions to mark the occasion. "Nadeshiko, the world number ones!" read a headline in the Asahi Shimbun, referring to the team's nickname, a frilled pink carnation that supposedly symbolises the beauty and grace of an "ideal" Japanese woman.

In wartime, the term "Yamato Nadeshiko" was used to describe women who displayed the traditional virtue of silent sacrifice in the nation's cause, an etymology that seems a little at odds with the fearless exploits of their modern-day footballing counterparts.

All but the most loyal Nadeshiko devotees were expecting the Americans to lift the World Cup for a third time against a side to whom they had not lost in 25 previous meetings.

With an average height of just 1.62 metres, the Japanese were far smaller than their opponents, but what they lacked in stature they made up for in tenacity and teamwork, qualities that led one commentator to liken them to the current Barcelona team.

The victory – the first time an Asian team has won a world football tournament at any level – provided momentary respite from the aftermath of the 11 March earthquake and tsunami, and the continuing crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.

In what proved an inspired piece of sports psychology, the team's [male] coach, Norio Sasaki, had shown them footage of the disaster before their previous two wins against Germany and Sweden.

"My girls played their hearts out," Sasaki said in a TV interview after the final whistle. "We could feel the energy coming from everyone back in Japan watching on TV. I'm stunned."

The mother of Homare Sawa, Japan's captain, said: "I felt the whole of Japan smile."

The team, aware of the added dimension to the result, unfurled a banner that read: "To our friends around the world. Thank you for your support."

Akino Yoshihara, a translator from Kyoto who is more accustomed to following the men's football team, said: "I always felt the players had the confidence to win. I'm not sure how much the tsunami factored into their performance, but they never gave up, and it's that attitude that will help us through the aftermath of the disaster."

Miho Kajioka, a football fan from Tokyo, said: "I don't think this will make people forget about the disaster, but at the same time we haven't had a single piece of good news for the past four months.

"It's as if we had nothing to be hopeful about, so in that sense the result is great. It's incredible."

Japan's opponents were gracious in defeat. "I truly believe that something bigger was pulling for this team," the US goalkeeper Hope Solo said.

In Washington, Barack Obama, who had watched the match on TV with his family at their official residence, congratulated the Japanese in a Twitter post: "Congratulations to Japan, women's World Cup champions," he said, adding that he "couldn't be prouder of the women of [the US national team] after a hard-fought game".

But the most effusive praise came from Junji Ogura, president of the Japanese football association. "The players have showed the brilliance of Japanese women," he said.


Justin McCurry in Tokyo

The GuardianTramp

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