On March 17, 2011, a record 9.0 magnitude earthquake off the coast of Japan triggered a tsunami that led to the biggest nuclear meltdown since Chernobyl. Months later, the unlikely World Cup run of the Japanese women’s soccer team culminated in triumph on July 17, 2011.
Japan’s experience of the 2011 Women’s World Cup will always be tied to the calamity of the tsunami and ensuing nuclear disaster at Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. But beyond its symbolic value, it was truly a shining moment for women in soccer and the sport in general. 2021 marks the 10-year anniversary of Fukushima and the World Cup, inspiring us to reflect on the same parallels between sport and disaster as the COVID-19 pandemic persists alongside international competitions—including this past summer’s Olympics and Paralympics in Tokyo.
The Japanese team (nicknamed the Nadeshiko) arrived in Germany in 2011 as underdogs to win it all, ranked fourth by FIFA. They were dealing with the weight of the Fukushima disaster, and every appearance was met with commentary on their smaller stature compared to competitors. They had superstar forward Homare Sawa, yet most counted the squad out, both because of the team’s lowly historical statistics (only once making it out of the group stages in 1995) and the toll of the situation at home.
But then they started winning.
First, the team made it out of the group stage with only one loss to England. In the quarterfinals, Japan and defending champions Germany held each other scoreless in regulation. In the 108th minute, in front of a German crowd, forward Karina Maruyama found the perfect angle to send the ball past the keeper and clinch a spot in the semifinal.
The semifinal against Sweden was a game of catch-up for Japan. Sweden’s Josefine Öqvist took advantage of an early mistake by Japanese defenders to score in just the 10th minute. Nahomi Kawasumi responded in the 19th minute to tie things up. Sawa then scored with a masterful header in the 60th minute to put her team ahead. Just four minutes later, Kawasumi launched the ball from far outside the box into the back of the net. It was undoubtedly the goal of the match and a highlight of the tournament.
Their wins were partially fueled by Coach Norio Sasaki’s strategy of showing the team videos of the destruction in Japan. According to the Guardian, he played reels before the games against Germany and Sweden to remind the team that they carried the hopes of a nation ravaged by destruction. Disaster weighed on their minds as they held a banner that read, “To Our Friends Around the World Thank You for Your Support” before and after the final match.
Coming into the final, the U.S. team was heavily favored, ranked first by FIFA. The United States, which has always been seen as a major player in international women’s soccer, won the first ever women’s World Cup in 1991 but had not held the trophy since 1999. And the U.S. players were itching to reclaim that honor.
Although Japan had never beaten the U.S. in any previous matchups, the team held the Americans even until substitute Alex Morgan scored in the 69th minute. Aya Miyama answered in the 81st minute after intercepting a weak clearance from the U.S. defense, leading to extra time.
Many were confident the game was over when U.S. forward Abby Wambach received a perfect cross to head in a goal at the 104th minute. But, in the spectacular final minutes of overtime, captain Sawa equalized with a shot that looked like magic. The ball sailed in from the corner, and she ran to the front of the pack to deftly direct it into the goal.
For the fourth time in history, the World Cup final ended in penalty kicks. The U.S. went first, but Ayumi Kaihori blocked two and Carli Lloyd’s shot sailed above the goal. Not even Wambach’s successful attempt or Hope Solo’s mental tactics could keep the Japanese from winning 3-1 in the shootout after Saki Kumagai sent her shot to the top left of the net. Instant joy and relief ensued for Japanese fans around the world.
The team brought much-needed hope to a country wracked with grief. They persevered in a world that has yet to recognize women’s sports as equal to men’s. Their win held significance for female athletes worldwide, inspiring future generations of players.
Plus, this Japan squad has been the only Asian team to win a major international soccer title. Though Japan has not had the same success recently, 2011 is a testament to the fact that there are no divinely ordained favorites in this sport that we all love.
One year later in London, the results flipped, and the USWNT started an era of international dominance, including getting revenge on Japan at the 2015 World Cup final. The 2011 Japan team was the last team to hold the trophy that was not the United States.
The impact of that 2011 tournament run and its context is long-lasting. Following the nuclear disaster, the 2020 Olympics were actually hailed as part of the country’s recovery. And while sports events push on, regions of the country are still in the process of reconstruction and nuclear cleanup.
Ten years after 2011, Japan once again embarked on sport in the midst of tragedy and disaster. Just as the 2011 World Cup was connected to the tsunami, every medal at the 2021 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics was connected to the coronavirus. (The pandemic overshadowed most fears about nuclear radiation in the J-Village, though it was yet another complication of the Games.)
We should expect sports and disaster to collide more and more often. Climate change, epidemics, sociopolitical conflict, and other issues are hallmarks of our modern society. But just as we contend with these tragedies every day, so do sports.
Whenever the 2011 World Cup is discussed, it is a story of disaster, underdogs, and emotional triumph. Sports are seen as the ultimate form of escapism, but in reality, many times they serve to highlight the problems currently plaguing us.
The 2011 Women’s World Cup remains a historic moment for the sports fans of 2021, if not bittersweet. A shining moment for the Nadeshiko, a quadrennial goal to attain again.