Japan’s football heroes to kick-off Olympic Torch Relay

Homara Sawa of Japan lifts the trophy after the FIFA Women's World Cup Final against the USA in 2011 (Photo by Joern Pollex/Getty Images)
Homara Sawa of Japan lifts the trophy after the FIFA Women's World Cup Final against the USA in 2011 (Photo by Joern Pollex/Getty Images)

Members of Japan's 2011 women's football team who famously won the FIFA Women's World Cup will get the Olympic Torch Relay underway on 25 March following a Grand Start ceremony in Fukushima. The moment will mark an emotional chapter in the history of the nation as the event kick-starts a symbolic 121-day tour around the country before the start of the hotly anticipated Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games on 23 July 2021.

Usually you’d save your best for last in a relay.

But conventional wisdom can be thrown out just this once so members of the Japanese Women’s World Cup-winning team of 2011 can lead from the start at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Torch Relay. Members of that world-beating Nadeshiko team, among the most beloved heroes in the history of Japanese sport, will begin the Olympic flame’s 121-day journey following the Grand Start ceremony this Thursday 25 March in Fukushima.

It is fitting that members of that famous team, the likes of SAWA Homare, KAIHORI Ayumi, MARUYAMA Karina and ANDO Kozue, should kick-off the event. When the Olympic Games get underway in Tokyo on 23 July, it will be nearly 10 years to the day that the Japanese women’s football team shocked the world in Germany, at Frankfurt’s Waldstadion, to become the first-ever World Cup winners (men or women) from Asia.

Twice coming from behind on that fateful day, in front of a crowd of 48,817 screaming fans, the Japanese team became synonymous with a never-say-die spirit that they allied to a short-passing game that caught the eye en route to the final.

Captain SAWA

The team was led by captain and 2011 World Cup best-player SAWA Homare; that year’s FIFA Women’s World Player of the Year who finished the 2011 World Cup as tournament top-scorer with five goals in the space of six games. She also helped the Japanese keep their nerve in the final against a USA side who were hunting their third world crown and boasted global superstars like Carli Lloyd, Abby Wambach, Hope Solo and Megan Rapinoe.

Sawa scored the all-important equaliser (2-2) in the dying minutes of extra time. In the shootout, Japanese goalkeeper KAIHORI Ayumi became an Asian football hero for the ages with a pair of saves from Shannon Boxx and Tobin Heath – denying the fancied Americans another world title and sparking off massive celebrations back in Japan.

(L-R) Saki Kumagai, Homare Sawa, Aya Sameshima, Azusa Iwashimizu, Mizuho Sakaguchi and Kozue Ando during the Japan Women's national team training session (Photo by Christof Koepsel/Getty Images)
(L-R) Saki Kumagai, Homare Sawa, Aya Sameshima, Azusa Iwashimizu, Mizuho Sakaguchi and Kozue Ando during the Japan Women's national team training session (Photo by Christof Koepsel/Getty Images)
2011 Getty Images

Great East Japan Earthquake

It wasn’t just a victory for this hyper-technical and talented Japanese team – or one restricted to the football pitch – it was a moment of pride and regeneration savoured by all Japanese people coming, as it did, just a few months after the devastating Great East Japan Earthquake, and the following tsunami and nuclear disaster which destroyed thousands of lives and livelihoods.

At a time when Japan needed heroes, they found them in their women’s national football team. They not only brought home a first-ever world title in their first-ever trip to a final, but they did it with class, style and, as always, a smile.

"We played hard as a team," said captain Sawa upon returning to Tokyo the day after the final, a gold medal draped around her neck and the trophy clutched in her hands. “We never stopped running. We didn’t give up... I have to dedicate this win to the people who suffered the disaster.”

Courage to a whole nation

The team was met by thousands upon landing at Tokyo's Narita Airport.

“On the field, we always felt the support of the nation behind us,” 2011 coach SASAKI Norio said when back home after the competition in Germany, where Japan became only the fourth nation to win a Women’s World Cup since its inception, in People's Republic of China, in 1991. “We wanted to give something back.”

Then-prime minister KAN Naoto hailed the victory as the “greatest gift” possible to a suffering nation. “I think they brought courage to the whole nation,” he said. “As the prime minister, and as one Japanese citizen, I express my heartfelt gratitude.”

Abby Wambach #20 of the United States is fouled from behind by Homare Sawa #10 of Japan in the second half in the FIFA Women's World Cup Canada 2015 Final (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Abby Wambach #20 of the United States is fouled from behind by Homare Sawa #10 of Japan in the second half in the FIFA Women's World Cup Canada 2015 Final (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
2015 Getty Images

So close to the Olympic goal

Captain Sawa, who became the face of that glorious moment, retained her dream of winning Olympic gold all the way until her retirement from football in 2015. “That's our next goal,” she said after the 2011 World Cup victory.

Sawa and her Nadeshiko did come close to achieving that dream. They reached the gold-medal match of London 2012 – a replay of the 2011 Women’s World Cup final – only to lose 2-1 to the United States at Wembley Stadium.

But that ultimate goal of Olympic gold, the one proposed by one of the greatest heroes Japanese sport will ever know, is still there to be had. As hosts of the football tournaments (men’s and women’s) this summer, Japan once again has the opportunity to bring joy to the country in a time of great difficulty for the world.

And when the victorious Japanese stars of the 2011 Women’s World Cup begin running this Thursday in Fukushima to mark the start of the nationwide Torch Relay, who among us will not be brought back to July of 2011 when Sawa and her team, holding hands in unity, rushed forward in celebration after KUMAGAI Saki’s winning spot-kick arrowed in the top corner?

USA win third consecutive women's football gold
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Carli Lloyd scores twice as the United States beat Japan 2-1 in the final at London 2012.