FRANKFURT, Germany (AP) ― Both call teamwork the highest good and both are in the final of the World Cup after 3-1 victories. Yet few teams could be as different as the United States and Japan.
The U.S. team again fed off the emotional high of overcoming fatigue and setbacks to find exhilarating unity and late goals to beat France.
Japan, meanwhile, prided itself on an inner calm when it trailed Sweden early and stuck tightly to coaching instructions to methodically fight back and win.
It leaves the U.S., a perennial power, to face the first-time finalist in Sunday’s title match at the three-week tournament.
“These wins, we can’t do it alone. We know a whole nation is cheering us on,” said U.S. forward Wambach after scoring the go-ahead goal late in the match. “We believe in ourselves and we’re in the final.”
Homare Sawa (top) of Japan celebrates her goal against Sweden. (Xinhua-Yonhap News)
Abby Wambach of the U.S. celebrates her goal against France. (AP-Yonhap News)
After their spectacular escape against Brazil in a quarterfinal ending in a penalty shootout, the semifinal was bound to be a letdown in comparison. Victory though, gave the Americans their first final since winning the title in 1999.
“We didn’t play well today,” U.S. coach Pia Sundhage said. “However, we find a way to win and that’s a credit to the players’ hearts.”
Wambach broke a tense 1-1 deadlock with a big header from Lauren Cheney’s corner kick in the 79th minute. Cheney delivered the ball perfectly to the far post, and Wambach jumped over the scrum and French goalkeeper Berangere Sapowicz to put it in the empty net. It was Wambach’s third goal of the tournament and 12th of her career, putting her level with fellow American Michelle Akers for third on the all-time World Cup scoring list.
Alex Morgan added an insurance goal in the 82nd, the first for the World Cup rookie.
Despite the loss, the World Cup was a resounding success for the French, who made their first appearance in the semifinals and qualified for next summer’s London Olympics.
The Americans had only two days’ rest following the Brazil game, their quickest turnaround of the tournament, and there had been concern that fatigue or emotions might get the best of them. But Wambach, who has been playing with an Achilles’ tendon so sore it often keeps her out of practice, again kept going till the difference was made.
“In the end, we’re in the finals,” Wambach said, “and that’s all that matters.”
To Japan, a whole lot more matters.
The Japanese players always had more on their minds than their next game in the marquee event for women’s football. In the wake of the March 11 tsunami and earthquake, they wanted to provide a feel-good story for fans back home.
And they came through.
Following their latest win, they again unfurled a huge banner that said “To our Friends Around the World ― Thank You for Your Support,” referring to the global outpouring of aid after the tsunami, that left nearly 23,000 dead or missing.
“What we have been doing so far is very good for Japan,” Sasaki said. “We are still recovering from the disaster. there were so many victims,” he said.
“Even little things, like a win, can give people courage and hope.”
Captain Homare Sawa made up for a huge error by scoring the go-ahead goal and push Japan toward its first final.
Surprise call-up Nahomi Kawasumi had two goals for Japan. She had just played 29 minutes in the tournament before coach Norio Sasaki started her in Japan’s biggest game ever.
“She is very tough and fit,” he said. “I didn’t ask her to score two goals but she did an excellent job.”