TOKYO, Japan – Forty-eight hours on from seeing Japan lift the World Cup, and after scrutinising the final a second time, only now can I objectively reflect on the Frankfurt showpiece and the tournament as a whole.
The simple conclusion is this: Germany 2011 was the hardest fought and most entertaining tournament I have ever witnessed.
Sure, there have been great overtime wins in Olympic finals and semifinals, and dramatic matches in previous World Cups, but never have I seen a tournament that from start to finish was as exciting as Germany.
We saw the level of the women's game rise to an all-time high - the speed of play, the technique and the tactics from the majority of competing nations was more impressive than ever. We saw experienced veterans such as Homare Sawa shine in her fifth World Cup, while at the same time new superstars like Alex Morgan emerged on the scene. We saw overtime battles, multiple shootouts, unbelievable goals, unexpected victories and come-from-behind wins by short-handed teams.
Before Nigeria and France kicked the tournament off, one of the main talking points surrounded the increase in the number teams who had reason to consider themselves as a genuine contender. But many -myself included - expected to see a final match-up that involved some combination of United States, Germany or Brazil.
To see two of those top-ranked teams go out in the quarterfinals would have been unthinkable in previous tournaments. If you chose Japan, the U.S, Sweden and France in the final four of your World Cup bracket, congratulations! And by the way, I don't believe you.
Kudos must also go to hosts Germany who put on a very well-organized and well-promoted tournament which drew fantastic numbers and sell-out crowds even after the home team was ousted. The atmosphere was advanced further by the seasoned soccer spectators who were as likely to condemn the darker arts of the game as they were to cheer on their favorite teams.
And I'm happy to say that once again we saw the fans at home fall in love with the US Women's Team. For the first time since 1999, people weren't talking about Mia Hamm and Brandi Chastain. Instead they were talking about Hope Solo's saves (and looks), Abby Wambach and Alex Morgan's goals, and discussing who should start between Lauren Cheney and Megan Rapinoe.
The passion was infectious and it grew throughout the tournament as people started to believe the U.S. could go all the way. Record numbers of fans followed on television and the internet and posted on a variety of social media outlets. Bars and living rooms were full of fans experiencing the emotional highs and lows of every goal and near-miss in the knock-out rounds. For the past week and a half it seemed like the entire country, soccer fans or not, had latched onto Team USA and was pulling them towards victory.
It was a heartbreaking finish to a fantastic tournament for the US women. The win over Brazil gave them tremendous momentum and it seemed like this was going to be their year. Pia Sundhage saw whatever team she fielded click and her troops continued to improve as they grew into the tournament. And, crucially, they had the mentality of champions. Everything seemed set for a USA World Cup title.
The only problem was that Japan turned out to be the real team of destiny.
The paths to the finals for Japan and the US eerily mirrored each other. They each had shaky starts but managed comfortable wins in their opening games. They had easy victories in their second matches, and they both faltered and lost their third games, placing them second in their respective groups.
Because of those second place group finishes, Japan and the US had to face two teams that many expected to see in the finals, Germany and Brazil, in the quarterfinal round. Both won in dramatic fashion with Japan unseating the hosts in overtime and the US defeating Brazil in penalty kicks after a last-second game-tying goal. Their semifinal matches were competitive but less dramatic, and both teams won 3-1 to reach the final.
Out of the strongest field of quarterfinal competitors in history, it was no surprise that the two teams to emerge in Frankfurt were the ones who placed the greatest emphasis on mentality and teamwork. Against talented opposition and often with their backs against the wall, the USA and Japan succeeded because they were more united on the pitch than the rest of the world.
It was entirely appropriate that the two sides who seemed destined to face each other in the finals would have to go all the way to penalty kicks to decide a victor. The US created and wasted many more goalscoring opportunities, especially in the opening period, but for the first time in the tournament, Sundhage's side came up against an opponent who could match them for spirit and desire.
One has to give Japan incredible credit for their play in the finals. Down a goal with time running out in regulation and again down a goal in overtime, they showed no signs of panic and stuck patiently to their passing principles. And when the timing was right they scored two game-tying goals the same way they had throughout the tournament - first by pouncing on an opponent's mistake, and second by scoring off of a set piece.
When it comes down to penalty kicks, anything can happen. Just as it was when the United States tied up the game late against Brazil, the momentum was in the hands of the most recent scorers. Japan was grateful and excited about a shootout. Conversely, the US was disappointed had to reflect on losing their lead (twice) and the prospect that Japan had scouted their penalty shooters from the Brazil game.
The US had everything to lose in the penalty kicks. They were the favorites but with that tag comes great pressure. Japan, on the other hand, had everything to win. In the aftermath of the tsunami that devastated their nation four months ago, the Japanese women offered a shining light to a still-hurting population. In the battle of intangibles, it was impossible for the US to compete with Japan's calm motivation.
As unfortunate as it was that the United States was not able to win the World Cup after playing so well and coming so close, it is impossible not to feel happy for the Japanese women. They played fantastically skilled, quick, smart and tactically-organized soccer. Refreshingly, they also played a clean and fair game devoid of diving, fake injuries, referee-jarring or negative attitudes. And against long odds, after barely being able to prepare for the tournament, they emerged victorious for their country. The Japanese women were truly an inspiration for everyone watching, no matter from where they were looking on.
The tournament has left me emotionally exhausted but sad to see it close. Small consolation though it may be, at least we have only a year to wait until many of the stars of the World Cup story take to the Olympic stage in England.
Bring on London 2012!