This past Sunday millions of spectators around the world tuned into the Women’s World Cup Final, a match that featured a talented United States team against an upstart national team of Japan. The American team entered the match as the favorites, having staved off elimination in their exciting quarterfinal match against an always dangerous and extremely skilled Brazilian team. Brazil and their leader, Marta, who is widely-regarded as one of the best female soccer players in the world, were stunned when the United States team scored a late, game-tying goal in extra time that sent the match to penalty kicks where the United States triumphed. Riding the momentum of that thrilling victory and the defeat of France in the semifinals, the U.S. met an underdog Japanese team whom many had not expected to make a deep run in the tournament.
The Japanese team endured similar battles en route to the final, first, against the two-time defending champion German team, the favored host of this World Cup, and then, against a tough Swedish team. Yet, the Japanese team prevailed yet again on Sunday and hoisted the trophy in jubilation after a hard-fought match that, in uncanny parallel with the U.S. contest against Brazil, was also determined by penalty kicks.
When the two teams finally faced off last Sunday, the United States may have actually outplayed the Japanese team for most of the game that day by holding a lead twice late into the match, but they failed to capitalize on numerous opportunities and faltered uncharacteristically during the shootout. The Japanese squad, as they had throughout the tournament, seized the day and took advantage of opportunities that came their way. They never gave up, even when the Americans seemed destined to become champions, and their heart and determination led them to the 2011 World Cup.
No one can question the heart and tenacity of any player on either team that day. However, there is something to be said for athletes motivated by an achievement beyond their own glory. While the U.S. team played wonderfully, they played for a victory, for a trophy, for their legacy, and for their country. The Japanese team played for something that transcended all of those things, as important as they are. With each stroke of the ball, they carried with them the hope of their compatriots, who, only four months ago, endured the most powerful earthquake to hit Japan and the subsequent ravaging tsunami.
Due mostly to the tsunami, Japan suffered an incredible amount of damage, with thousands of buildings being destroyed, several nuclear meltdowns, and over 15,000 people losing their lives, while thousands of others remain injured or missing. The country faces billions of dollars in rebuilding costs, in addition to the losses that cannot be measured in money nor ever forgotten. However, if only for a few weeks, the Japanese national team gave their people something to cheer about, a much-needed return to normalcy and shared achievement, and through the support of their people and the memories of the destruction of their nation, it seemed that day as though nothing was going to stop Japan from triumphing in the international spotlight.
Japan’s inspirational play eerily resembles that of the 2006 New Orleans Saints, who in September of that year, returned to the Superdome for the first time since Hurricane Katrina inundated New Orleans and much of the Gulf Coast in late August 2005. On September 25, 2006, the Saints hosted the Atlanta Falcons in the return to their home stadium, over a year after Katrina devastated the city and the people of New Orleans. That Monday night, during a nationally televised game, the Saints took the field to a pulsating ovation from their fans, and a sense of unity and hope filled the air of the Superdome, where, only a year earlier, the stadium had served as a shelter for thousands in the aftermath of the hurricane. As if there were any doubt that the Saints would emerge triumphant on that fateful night, they filled the hearts of those who remained in New Orleans with joy, delivering a throttling 23-3 victory over the Falcons.
A year after winds had pounded the Superdome, severely damaging its roof, and rains had flooded the homes of thousands, the renovated arena, whose extensive damage was repaired at a cost of $185 million, housed over 70,000 people that night who were once again proud to be from New Orleans. Three years later, the Saints captivated their fans with a stellar season that ended with a seemingly scripted Super Bowl victory. A vibrant city, known for its culture, diversity, music, and art, New Orleans is still struggling to overcome the damage that was done over a half decade ago.
Japan is only a few months removed from its own natural disaster, and it will take time for the country to recover. However, Sunday’s victory in the World Cup was a great first step. Just like the Saints, who put the city of New Orleans on their shoulders in a time of grief, the Japanese women of that team lifted the spirit of their country with their courageous effort on the soccer field. In both cases, the floods could not submerge the heart and soul of the people, and the performances by both teams have generated a deluge of support that will lead to a brighter future.