Japan Beats U.S. on Penalties to Earn First Women’s World Cup Soccer Title

Japan twice overcame one-goal deficits before beating the U.S. in a penalty shootout to win its first Women’s World Cup soccer championship and deny the Americans a record third title.

Japan won 3-1 on penalty kicks after the teams tied 2-2 in yesterday’s final at Commerzbank Arena in Frankfurt, where Japan also eliminated two-time defending champion and host Germany in its run to the championship.

It’s the second international sports title in a week for Japan, which is still recovering from an earthquake and nuclear disaster in March. The Japanese team, ranked No. 4 in the world by FIFA, soccer’s governing body, held up pregame banners during the tournament thanking “our friends around the world.”

“The players were patient, they wanted to win this game and I think it’s because of that the Americans scored only two goals,” Japanese coach Norio Sasaki said at a news conference. “Considering the current situation in Japan, I would like to take this opportunity to thank everyone for their support, and in particular for the support we received from Germany.”

The U.S. missed its first three chances in the penalty shootout, with Japanese goaltender Ayumi Kaihori making two diving saves and Carli Lloyd sending a shot over the goal.

With Japan leading 2-1 in the fourth round of penalties, Saki Kumagai converted her try to give Japan the title and send her teammates rushing onto the field in celebration.

“As much as I wanted this, if there’s any team I could have given this to it’s Japan,” U.S. goaltender Hope Solo said in a television interview as she held back tears. “So I’m happy for them.”

Early U.S. Barrage

Japan withstood an early U.S. barrage and twice rallied against the two-time World Cup champions. The U.S. failed to convert at least five scoring chances in a scoreless opening half, including three in a four-minute span and a shot by Abby Wambach that hit the bottom of the crossbar and bounced away.

Substitute Alex Morgan, at 22 the youngest member of the U.S. team, snapped the scoreless tie with her goal in the 69th minute. Aya Miyama tied it for Japan in the 80th minute after a defensive breakdown by the U.S.

The Americans went back in front in the first of two 15- minute extra time periods as Wambach scored on a header in the 104th minute. It was Wambach’s fourth goal of the tournament, all on headers.

Japan answered again when Homare Sawa put a deflected shot past Solo off a corner kick with three minutes left in extra time. The goal set up the second penalty kick shootout in six Women’s World Cup finals and the first since 1999, when the U.S. beat China. The U.S., which converted all five penalty kicks in a quarterfinal shootout win against Brazil, had its title chances end with three straight misses against Japan.

Blown Chances

“It’s heartbreaking,” Wambach said in a televised interview. “Japan played well, they never gave up. We had chances throughout the game and we didn’t put them away.”

Japan won in its first visit to the championship game, while the U.S. lost its first final after winning the inaugural tournament in 1991 and again as the host in 1999.

The U.S., which finished third at the previous two Women’s World Cups, was the top team in the women’s rankings and a 21-20 favorite to win yesterday. Japan was rated a 2-1 chance by U.K. bookmaker William Hill Plc (WMH), meaning a winning $1 bet would return $2 plus the original stake.

“A couple of mistakes and we let them in the game,” said U.S. coach Pia Sundhage, whose team outshot Japan 27-14. “It’s hard to lose with PKs. We couldn’t put away our chances. It’s a small difference between winning and losing.”

Rugby Triumph

The victory came four days after Japan’s rugby team won its first Pacific Nations Cup championship, boosting a country that 18 weeks ago was struck by a magnitude-9 earthquake, the biggest in Japanese history.

The temblor triggered a 7-meter high (23-foot) tsunami that inundated coastal towns around Sendai, north of Tokyo, leaving more than 24,000 people dead or missing.

The disaster caused an overall economic loss of $210 billion, making it the costliest natural catastrophe on record, according to insurer Munich Re. More than 530,000 homes were destroyed or damaged and Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima Dai-Ichi power plant was crippled, causing three reactors to melt down in the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl in 1986.

Japan is the second Asian nation to reach the final, after China in 1999.

Japan is the first country to win the World Cup after losing its final group-stage game. England defeated Japan 2-0 and Sweden beat the U.S. in the last round of pool games.

Second in Group

The Japanese team finished second in its group behind England and reached the semifinals with a 1-0 win against Germany, which is ranked second in the world. It then beat fifth-ranked Sweden 3-1 to reach the final.

The U.S. for the first time lost twice in the World Cup, having also been beaten by Sweden 2-1 in group play. The U.S. has now finished third on three occasions and runner-up once since Mia Hamm led the Americans to their two titles.

Even with the loss, the run to the final may be a boost for Women’s Professional Soccer, the U.S. league that’s in its third year. Average attendance at regular-season games last season was 3,601, a 23 percent drop from the inaugural year. In the first 34 games of this year’s 54-game campaign, the average was 2,722, another 24 percent decline, according to figures posted on the league’s website.

Three of the original nine WPS teams have folded and the Chicago Red Stars didn’t have enough money to compete in 2011, leaving the league with six teams, including the expansion Western New York Flash.

The next Women’s World Cup is set for Canada in 2015.

To contact the reporter on this story: Dex McLuskey in Dallas at dmcluskey@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Michael Sillup at msillup@bloomberg.net

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