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Japan to play Sweden for place in World Cup final

Japan to play Sweden for place in World Cup final

Only hours before the most important match of their lives, captain Homare Sawa, star Aya Miyama and the rest of the Japanese players were transfixed by slides of the devastation heaped on their country from the earthquake and tsunami.
That same evening they went out and beat mighty Germany, the two-time defending champions playing at home, to reach their first World Cup semifinal with a fighting spirit that belied their size in the face of the towering hosts.
"They touched us deep in our souls," Miyama said of the pictures.
Sawa added: "As a player we cannot do very much for Japan, but at least we can try and play as hard as we can."
Coach Norio Sasaki's ploy had worked. He had set up the session to give the players "more stability and heart" for the match, and he got it _ and then some.
After the breakthrough victory on Saturday, there is no more need for such inspiration ahead of Wednesday's semifinal against Sweden.
In sharp contrast, Sweden's march through the tournament has been as carefree as the twirling, joyous team dance that accompanies every victory.
"We cannot play for the same reasons, obviously, as them," Sweden captain Caroline Seger said.
That 1-0 victory over Germany, when Sawa set up Karina Maruyama for the decider deep in extra time, silenced the sellout crowd in Germany but brought joy back home and front-page headlines across the nation.
The banner headline that endears them to all in Germany reads: "To our friends around the world _ Thank you for your support." The players form a solemn postgame procession and carry it around the stadium after each win.
It refers to the global outpouring of aid in the wake of the March 11 disaster that left nearly 23,000 dead or missing and caused a nuclear crisis at the Fukushima nuclear plant.
The memory of the tragedy has been a constant theme running through the team at the three-week tournament.
"The players know in their heart what has been going on," Sasaki said. "The players were deeply impressed and the feeling connected to their heart."
In Japan, the team's rise at the championship and its stunning upset of Germany has brought relief from the daily pain the fallout of the disaster still causes.
The country has been battered by dozens of strong aftershocks since the strongest quake in Japanese history. It makes a feel-good story most welcome.
Their success on the global stage has turned into a bigger hit than baseball or sumo wrestling, and the media dominance of a woman's sport is a huge surprise in itself.
The players also get something in return, said Sasaki. Seeing how the Japanese prevail despite such adversity is a mental boost.
"The images of these people gave us strength," Sasaki said after the win in which the Japanese absorbed one German attack after another, only to hit back against a tiring opponent.
The team is called "Nadeshiko" in reference to an indigenous flower and the beauty of Japanese women's spirit.
On the pitch, Nadeshiko translates into crisp, precise passing and lightning quick moves that have dumbfounded bigger and physically stronger opponents, like the Germans.
In that sense, the Swedes have been forewarned.
They already had a taste of what's to come when they had to fight hard to earn a 1-1 draw against Japan in a pre-World Cup friendly.
"We don't have very good memories of playing against them," Sweden coach Thomas Dennerby said. "Our players will work hard to go one step further."
They have done so every time. All of their first-round games were decided by one goal. But that did include a 2-1 win over the United States, which is now the tournament favorite.
The tight games have welded the team together.
"There is a fantastic atmosphere in our team and we pulled each other through," forward Lotta Schelin said.
And it always shows in the players' victory twirl, a version of Moussier Tombola's Logobitombo dance they picked up in France.
They will have to get through the match first though, a battle which has been billed as big versus small _ as in big Swedes versus small Japanese.
In their 21-player squads, the Japanese only have one woman taller than 1.70 meters while the Swedes only have 5 smaller than that height.
But Dennerby dismisses the height issue.
"It is not a matter of how tall you are," he said. "It is not basketball."


Updated : 2021-08-01 19:14 GMT+08:00