FRANKFURT, Germany (AP) – They came to play for their earthquake and tsunami-ravaged country. They left with the Women's World Cup trophy, holding it high above their smiling faces, flecked with gold confetti.
Japan stunned the Americans in a riveting final, beating the favorites 3-1 in a penalty shootout Sunday after coming from behind twice in a 2-2 draw. Goalkeeper Ayumi Kaihori made two brilliant saves in the shootout.
''Before we went to the match tonight we had some commentary on television and we heard comments on the situation in Japan,'' coach Norio Sasaki said. ''We wanted to use this opportunity to thank the people back home for the support that has been given.''
This was Japan's first appearance in the final of a major tournament, and they had not beaten the Americans in their previous 25 meetings, including a pair of 2-0 losses in warm-up matches a month before the World Cup. But the Nadeshiko pushed ahead, playing inspired football and hoping their success could provide even a small emotional lift to their nation, still reeling from the March 11 earthquake and tsunami that devastated the northern coast of the country and left nearly 23,000 dead or missing.
After each game, the team unfurled a banner saying, ''To our Friends Around the World - Thank You for Your Support.'' On Sunday, they did it before the match and afterward they had a new sign to display: Champions - and the first Asian country to win this title.
The Americans found it all too hard to grasp. They believed they were meant to be World Cup champions after their rocky year - needing a playoff to qualify, a loss in group play to Sweden, the epic comeback against Brazil. They simply couldn't pull off one last thriller.
''The players were patient, they wanted to win this game,'' Sasaki said. ''I think it's because of that the Americans scored only two goals.''
''We ran and ran,'' captain Homare Sawa said. ''We were exhausted, but we kept running.''
''This is a team effort,'' Kaihori said. ''In the penalty shootout I just had to believe in myself and I was very confident.''