The U.S. women’s soccer team is set to play in the FIFA World Cup championship match for the first time since it won the title on home soil in 1999. An American team that has survived some pressure games will take on surprising Japan Sunday in Frankfurt, Germany.
Just like the U.S. women’s team in 1999 captured the imagination of the nation, this 2011 edition has finally achieved a similar following. But it has not been a smooth ride.
Though the Americans are ranked number one in the world and won the 2008 Olympic gold medal in Beijing, they almost failed to qualify for this 2011 World Cup in Germany.
During qualifying last year, they shockingly lost to Mexico in a regional semifinal and needed to win a third-place match against Costa Rica just to reach a special two-game playoff against Italy. The U.S. team gained the 16th and final World Cup berth with slim 1-0 wins in those away and home matches.
In first round group play in Germany, the U.S. beat North Korea, 2-0, and newcomer Colombia, 3-0, but then lost to Sweden, 2-1. It was the first ever loss in the group phase of a World Cup for any U.S. women’s team.
That set up a quarterfinal encounter last Sunday with five-time FIFA World Player of the year Marta and Brazil, the team that routed the U.S. in the World Cup semifinals four years ago, 4-0. The Americans had a player ejected against Brazil early in the second half but - even though shorthanded - clung to a 1-1 tie through regulation. When Marta scored early in the 30-minute overtime period and the clock wound down, it appeared the U.S. would be on its way home.
But in the dying moments of added, or stoppage, time, star striker Abby Wambach amazingly converted a header off a long high pass to tie the score at 2-2 and send the match to penalty kicks. Thanks to a diving save by U.S. goalie Hope Solo, the Americans prevailed in the shootout, 5-3.
Then on Wednesday in the semifinals against a French team that outplayed them for most of the match, the U.S. scored two goals in the final 15 minutes to win, 3-1.
Midfielder Megan Rapinoe shared her thoughts on what it means.
“It really is a dream come true," said Rapinoe. "And it’s so cliché to say but you know being a footballer and reaching the World Cup finals, I mean that’s everything we’ve worked for, not only this whole year or the cycle leading up to this tournament, but pretty much our whole lives. Everybody wants to get to the World Cup final.”
So now the U.S. women play a surprising team from Japan in Sunday’s title game. Japan upset favorite and host Germany in the quarterfinals and then upset Sweden in the semifinals.
Leading up the World Cup, the U.S. played Japan in two home warm-up games in May and won both by scores of 2-0. But U.S. goalkeeper Hope Solo says after the tsunami and earthquake in their country earlier this year, the Japanese are playing for more than just themselves.
“It is pretty clear to most of us that we’re not going to see the same Japan team that we saw in the last couple of friendlies," said Solo. "They are playing for something bigger and better than the game. And when you’re playing with so much emotion and so much heart, that’s hard to play against. So I think it’s going to be an incredible final that people didn’t expect to see.”
Teammate Abby Wambach, playing in her third World Cup, said she will do everything she can to assure the U.S. comes out on top this time.
“Getting to the final is one thing and winning is another," said Wambach. "This isn’t good enough for me. It doesn’t matter if I came in third place in 2003 and came in third place in 2007, getting to the final is only halfway part of our dream coming true, and we want to make sure that we’re on that top podium come Sunday.”
There is no doubt that there will be huge television audiences for the World Cup final in both the United States and Japan, with many more fans around the world tuning in to see how well the women at the highest level now play the so-called “beautiful game.”