Monday 16 July 2018, 21:35

The final chapter in a Japanese fairy tale

  • Japan won the Women's World Cup on this day in 2011

  • Japan’s Ayumi Kaihori pictured saving a penalty in the 2011 final shoot-out

  • Kaihori: "We felt we had the support of the whole world"

This was the opening penalty in a shoot-out that decided the 2011 FIFA Women’s World Cup final. It set the tone for what was to follow.

Ayumi Kaihori had just flicked out a leg to block Shannon Boxx’s spot-kick and, of the four USA players who step up, only Abby Wambach is able to find a way past the Japan keeper. The Nadeshiko, who before 2011 had won just three of their 16 Women’s World Cup matches, go on to become the most unexpected champions in the tournament’s history.

The triumph was also as poignant as it was unexpected. Just a few short months earlier, Japan had been devastated by an earthquake and tsunami that killed over 15,000 people and injured many thousands more. Lifting the spirits of a country in mourning became a powerful source of motivation for Kaihori & Co, and the keeper’s post-final words found a familiar focus.

"It’s not an easy time for Japan at the moment and I feel we have given some kind of encouragement and joy to the people back home," she told "That was always the motivation. We wanted to do something for our country."

Several years later, after retiring, Kaihori predictably named the 2011 final as the highlight of her career. "We played that tournament not only for ourselves," she said. "We felt we had not only the support of Japan, but also the whole world."

Even among their crestfallen American opponents, there was impressive magnanimity in defeat – and an acknowledgement of the result's wider significance. Kaihori’s opposite number, Hope Solo, hailed Japan as "a great team", adding: "I truly believe that something bigger was pulling for them".

Carli Lloyd, one of the players to fail from the spot, was another to laud these unlikely and popular victors. "If any other country was to win this, then I’m really happy and proud for Japan," she said. "Deep down inside I really thought it was our destiny to win it. But maybe it was Japan’s."

Did you know? One of the gold medals from that unforgettable 2011 final is held in the archive at the FIFA World Football Museum in Zurich.