World Cup: U.S., Japan ride emotion into final

Japan's Homare Sawa and United States' Abby Wambach
AP Photo

FRANKFURT, Germany - With two World Cup titles and three Olympic gold medals, the United States has history on its side in Sunday's final against Japan.

With their lightning quick passing and slick combination play, the Japanese may well have a grip on the future of the game.

The physical, sweeping game of the Americans stands in sharp contrast with the close, possession-oriented game of Japan, turning Sunday's match into an intriguing clash of styles.

The United States beat Japan in two pre-World Cup friendlies, but that will count for little in the final.

"They're a different team here in the World Cup," United States captain Christie Rampone said. "It brings a different level."

The accolades for Japan have been coming in from all angles, comparing its style with that of Barcelona and even Brazil's "beautiful game."

Japan has sought to develop that flair for years, but only this time do they have the confidence to execute it at the highest level. Japan coach Norio Sasaki said his team was ready to reach the Olympic semifinals three years ago in Beijing and "this time we said, let's go to the final."

Twice he delivered.

Japan's breakthrough victory came in the quarterfinals last weekend when it beat host Germany, the two-time defending champion, in extra time when it proved fitter than its big, lumbering opponent.

Even if Sunday is Japan's first final in the record books, Sasaki said his players already have one under the belt — against Germany.

"This was almost like playing the final in term of pressure, attitude and expectations," Sasaki said of the game against the hosts. "The actual final will be a very similar situation."

That same weekend the United States had a similar experience, surviving a match of suffocating intensity against Brazil, with a come-from-behind effort that ended with a penalty-shootout win. It was perhaps the best Women's World Cup game ever and created a groundswell of grassroot support across the United States.

"Obviously coming from behind against Brazil is historic," said Abby Wambach, who scored in the last minute of extra time to level the score at 2-2 and force a shootout. "It's one of those moments that may never happen again.

Wambach told's Lauren Shehadi that the only way the big wins over Brazil and France will go down in the "history books" is to win the World Cup on Sunday.

"We hope to pull out one more game, one more 90-minute performance on and hopefully we'll be world champs," she said.

Both rode their emotional surge through the semifinals, with Japan beating Sweden 3-1 and the United States getting the same score over France.

For Japan it again proved that a wide-open direct game, like the United States often relies on, suits it. The Americans can draw inspiration from beating the only side that comes close to Japan's level of skills.

"Playing France and the amazing team France was, it was kind of good preparation for Japan," Rampone said. "They're both very technical teams, both very patient on the ball, very offensive, attack with a lot of numbers."

Another American confidence boost is in the history books. In 25 matches dating back to 1986, it has beaten Japan 22 times and remains unbeaten.

There is a first for everything and Japan already reached it first semifinal, and first final. A first win over the United States would suit them fine.

"We are just ready to face that challenge," Sasaki said.

So is the nation, which has been lapping up the feel-good story of its overachieving women while it is still recovering from the devastation the March 11 earthquake and tsunami caused. Already tight as a group, it has bonded the women even closer together as they are playing for a cause bigger than football itself — providing some balm for a nation in pain.

Right before the match against Germany, Sasaki showed pictures of the devastation to his players to heighten their focus and determination. They responded in kind.

Sasaki will keep the pictures under wraps this weekend.

"I don't have to remind them of the disaster in Japan before the match against the United States because they know exactly," he said.

Back home, their story has even bumped baseball and sumo off the sports front pages.

"They're not just playing a soccer game, they're playing to heal a wounded country," said Tony DiCicco, the United States coach of the 1999 World Cup-winning team. "They have won fans not just in Japan and not just here in Germany but all over the world."

Meanwhile, National Soccer Hall of Famer Michelle Akers, who played on the 1999 team and the one that won the Women's World Cup in 1991, said on "The Early Show" Thursday that the current U.S. team's efforts show determination akin to what her teams had.

"This team, it's fun to watch," she said, "because they've got the guts and that heart and that grit, you know, (to) grind it out and do whatever it takes to win."