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Sunday, July 17, 2011

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"Nadeshiko Japan" players share a smile during train Saturday in preparation for Sunday's Women's World Cup final against the United States. KYODO PHOTO

'Nadeshiko' stamp Japan's soccer identity on world audience

Staff writer

The Japan Football Association was hoping the stars of the men's team would inspire the nation this summer until plans to take part in the Copa America fell by the wayside, but the success of their female counterparts has more than filled the gap.

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Power and glory: Japan stands on the brink of a first-ever world title against the U.S. in the final of the Women's World Cup in Frankfurt on Sunday night. AP PHOTO

Having reached the final of the Women's World Cup after a string of thoroughly impressive performances, "Nadeshiko Japan" is now one win away from claiming the country's first-ever world title at any level. The U.S. will certainly provide a stiffer test on Sunday than anything Norio Sasaki's side has faced so far, but then refusing to be intimidated has been a common theme throughout Japan's campaign.

Much was made of the height difference in knockout games against Germany and Sweden, but a combination of technical ability, tenacity and tireless running was enough to level the playing field, and decisiveness in front of goal made sure the hard work did not go to waste.

Captain Homare Sawa has been one of the stars of the tournament with four goals to her name, Karina Maruyama made the difference in extra time to sink the Germans in the quarterfinals, while Nahomi Kawasumi celebrated her first start of the competition against the Swedes with two goals to seal a place in the final.

Japan's strength, however, has been its teamwork. Without that, Sasaki's side would not be able to play the kind of fast-passing, perpetual-motion game that has won praise from all quarters over the past four weeks, with New Zealand manager John Herdman even being moved to describe Japan as "the Barcelona of women's football."

With the men's Under-17 team earning similar plaudits at the recent age-group World Cup in Mexico, and European clubs falling over themselves to sign skillful young players like Bayern Munich-bound Takashi Usami, Japan is steadily cementing a worldwide reputation for attractive, technical soccer.

That this style of play runs so deep throughout the various national teams is proof that Japan now has its own, distinct soccer identity. Importing expertise from around the globe in a bid to bridge the gap with the rest of the world has pulled the Japanese game in different directions over the years, but it has now reached a level where the student has something to teach the master.

At a more local level, the success of Nadeshiko Japan will surely act as a fillip to the women's game. Public interest will inevitably drop off to some degree once the tournament is over, but girls across the country will be inspired by what they have seen and a new generation will emerge to carry the baton onward.

If Sunday's game goes Japan's way, the achievement will rank as one of the country's greatest-ever sporting triumphs. The U.S. goes into the game in Frankfurt as the heavy favorite, but one big performance is all it takes, and with millions at home set to watch the match live — despite the 3:45 a.m. kickoff time — Japan will certainly not want for support.

Whether that will be enough to land the ultimate prize remains to be seen. Whatever the outcome, the way Nadeshiko Japan has captured the world's attention will not be forgotten in a hurry.

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