Japan are the newest World Champions of women's football after defeating the USA 3-1 on penalties after a 2-2 extra time draw in the Women's World Cup final. It was the best World Cup final that I have ever seen in either gender, and a fantastic advertisement for the women's version of the game. It was a just reward for a team devoted to an attractive style of play, and a morale boost for a country that experienced a horrific natural disaster four months before.
I knew that Japan would try to win by playing an attractive style, but I was not expecting the US women to play their best and most attractive match of the tournament. They should have scored a goal within 30 seconds had Lauren Cheney cut the ball back for Abby Wambach charging down the center of the penalty area. That opening segment set the tone for a dominant first half by the Americans in which they hit the woodwork twice, skimmed over the crossbar at least three times, and went narrowly wide on several more occasions. Their defensive wing-backs cut off Japanese channels on the flanks and their midfielders (especially O'Reilly) did a great job of not allowing Japan to buildup in the center of the field. Despite all this, Japan were the more pleased with the 0-0 halftime score.
The addition of Alex Morgan at the start of the second half, a forced substitution because of the injury to Cheney, was almost a match-winning decision. (ESPN's Jeff Carlisle gave her a 9 rating, and if the USA had won the match she would have been named best on field.) Morgan was more dynamic up top and a constant threat to Japan's defensive line, and it was not a surprise that she would open the scoring when a long ball from Wambach found her in a one-on-one situation with the Japanese centerback. She overpowered her challenger and slotted the ball past the Japan 'keeper Kaihori. That goal should have been enough to give the USA the title, but a botched defensive clearance after a Sawa cross allowed Miyama to pounce and equalize with ten minutes remaining. Extra time loomed.
Extra time failed to break the deadlock, but not for lack of trying. The USA retook the lead with a minute to go in the first extra time period, and this time it was Morgan who supplied the cross for -- who else? -- Abby Wambach to score from -- what else? -- a powerful header. Japan pored on the pressure in the closing minutes, and after a dangerous chance from Kinga was cleared away for a corner, they grabbed an equalizer when Sawa redirected the corner kick (with some deflection by Wambach) into the net. Once again Japan showed that it is possible to overcome a lack of height in set-piece opportunities with superior positioning and movement. Penalties loomed.
Much will be said and written about the Americans' performance in the penalty kick shootout. Maybe the first five shouldn't have been selected. Maybe the pressure didn't make them after all. For a second time in the tournament, the team that equalized in the extra time period went on to win the penalty kick tiebreaker. The momentum was with the USA in the quarterfinal; yesterday that momentum was with Japan.
It has been said in the past that possession-oriented football -- the "Tiki-Taka" style -- is pleasing to the neutral supporter but falls short when it comes time to win championships. So it is worth noting that the current world champions at the national team level in both genders and the current UEFA Champions League holders are devotees of this style. Not only can possession football win the hearts of neutrals, it can also raise silver and gold. Here's hoping that trend continues at Brazil in 2014 and in Canada in 2015.