FRANKFURT, Germany (AP) – The Women's World Cup came to a bastion of the men's game - and, for three weeks, the whole of Germany responded. One of the most knowledgeable crowds in the world lapped it up, game after game with full stadiums and soaring television ratings.
Then came Sunday's final to bring the party to a fitting and emotional climax.
Japan became the first Asian nation to win the title, coming from behind twice with quick, nimble passing moves to force a 2-2 draw after extra time and then triumphing in a penalty shootout.
Last weekend, Japan used the same intricate tactics to outlast a big, lumbering Germany in the quarterfinals.
''They are comfortable with the ball,'' U.S. coach Pia Sundhage said. ''They believe in their technique. It is good for women's football.''
All through the tournament, Japan was carrying the burden of the March 11 earthquake and tsunami which left some 23,000 dead or missing back home. Coach Norio Sasaki showed pictures to his players right before the match against Germany to motivate them. After that win, he didn't have to anymore.
And the Americans?
Twice within eight days they were involved in matches so intense and enthralling they could easily rank among the best in the men's game as well. In their quarterfinal, they came from behind with a last-minute goal and beat Brazil in a shootout.
Japan's win also spread the reach of the World Cup beyond the traditional women's powers of Europe and the United States for the first time.
Any snide comments on how it all compared to men's football were an afterthought as fans reveled in the women's game.
''You should never compare such matches with those by men, even if it is the same game,'' FIFA President Sepp Blatter said. ''There was great atmosphere and it continued even after the Germans were eliminated.''
The Commerzbank Arena had a sellout crowd of 48,817 for Sunday's final, which set a new record for tweets per second on the social networking website Twitter.
Many other matches were sellouts too, including the opening game at Berlin's 73,680-capacity Olympic Stadium which was watched by a peak television audience of 18 million in the host country.
The players rewarded the fans with a great many standout games and goals.
Most of the games were tight, and gone were the days when one-sided results showed how unevenly spread the quality of the game around the world still was.
''There were no weak teams anymore,'' Blatter said of the 15 nations that joined the hosts in Germany. The competition moves to 24 nations when Canada hosts the tournament in 2015.
So even if the goal average slumped to 2.65 a game from 3.47 four years ago, many of the games and goals were outstanding.
Saturday's bronze medal game between Sweden and France was a case in point. Late in the game, down to 10 players, Sweden's Marie Hammarstrom picked up a loose ball, beat two defenders and then struck a left left-footed shot into the top corner from just inside the box.
Many of the 32 games had moments like that.
Marta was supposed to be the player to define the tournament, and she did score four goals to lead Brazil to the brink of the semifinals and equal Germany's Birgit Prinz as the all-time World Cup scorer with 14 goals.
The shootout loss against the United States stopped her run and shattered her aura. All through that match, she was petulant and didn't stop complaining to the referee, right up to the moment that the ref finally gave her a yellow card.
And despite Marta's stupendous talent, the German crowd started whistling and booing her, unlike any other player at the tournament. When the game's only superstar left, she wasn't missed for a moment.
The player to watch was Japan's captain Homare Sawa, playing in her fifth World Cup at age 32. She was resilient enough to lead Japan's midfield and end up as the tournament's top scorer with five goals, including a thrilling one in the 117th minute which set up Japan for the shootout.
Others stepped in to make Marta a footnote. The United States had Abby Wambach, whose headers and never-say-die attitude with late goals took the United States into the final. The Hollywood star appeal of Hope Solo was complemented by her clutch saves to make her one of the defining players of the event. She was a good goalkeeper in a tournament lacking many.
The tournament was not all positive. Refereeing standards often were poor. Never more so than when Equatorial Guinea defender Bruna picked up the ball in her penalty area, held it in both hands for a couple of seconds before dropping it, and the referee failed to spot it despite the outraged Australian protests.
''As far a refereeing is concerned, we still have some work to do. There is still a lot to do, actually,'' Blatter said.
And doping was a factor, with six positive cases.
North Korea blamed its five positive cases on medicine from musk deer glands to treat injuries from a lightning strike at a training camp.
''This is a shock,'' Blatter said.