FRANKFURT, Germany — With two World Cup titles and three Olympic gold medals, the United States has history on its side in Sunday’s final against Japan.
With their lightning quick passing and slick combination play, the Japanese may well have a grip on the future of the game.
The physical, sweeping game of the Americans stands in sharp contrast with the close, possession-oriented game of Japan, turning Sunday’s match into an intriguing clash of styles.
The United States beat Japan in two pre-World Cup exhibitions, but that will count for little in the final.
“They’re a different team here in the World Cup,” U.S. captain Christie Rampone said. “It brings a different level.”
The accolades for Japan have been coming in from all angles, comparing its style with that of Barcelona and Brazil’s “beautiful game.”
Japan has sought to develop that flair for years, but only this time do they have the confidence to execute it at the highest level. Japan coach Norio Sasaki said his team was ready to reach the Olympic semifinals three years ago in Beijing and “this time we said, let’s go to the final.”
The cup itself is within reach, he said.
“It’s definitely not impossible,” Sasaki said. “It is a once in a lifetime chance to win this and beat the number one team in the world.”
Japan’s breakthrough victory came in the quarterfinals last weekend when it beat host Germany, the two-time defending champion, in extra time when it proved fitter than its big, lumbering opponent.
Even if Sunday is Japan’s first final in the record books, Sasaki said his players already have one under the belt — against Germany.
“This was almost like playing the final in term of pressure, attitude and expectations,” Sasaki said of the game against Germany. “The actual final will be a very similar situation.”
That same weekend the United States had a similar experience, rallying in an intense match against Brazil with a penalty-shootout win. It created a groundswell of support across the United States.
“Obviously, coming from behind against Brazil is historic,” said Abby Wambach, who scored in the last minute of extra time to tie it 2-2 and force a shootout. “It’s one of those moments that may never happen again.
“I want it to be life-changing at the end of the road. Because right now, I’m still very much involved in this and I’m not trying to think anything other than Sunday and winning.”
Both rode their emotional surge through the semifinals, with Japan beating Sweden 3-1 and the United States posting the same score over France.
The Americans can draw inspiration from beating the only side that comes close to Japan’s level of skills.
“Playing France and the amazing team France was, it was kind of good preparation for Japan,” Rampone said. “They’re both very technical teams, both very patient on the ball, very offensive, attack with a lot of numbers.”
Another American confidence boost comes from the history books. In 25 matches dating back to 1986, it has beaten Japan 22 times and remains unbeaten.
However, there is a first for everything. Japan already reached it first semifinal and final.
“We are just ready to face that challenge,” Sasaki said.
So is the nation, which has been lapping up the feel-good story of its overachieving women while recovering from the devastation the earthquake and tsunami on March 11. It’s bonded the Japanese women even closer by playing for a cause bigger than soccer — providing some balm for a nation in pain.
Right before the match against Germany, Sasaki showed pictures of the devastation to his players to heighten their focus and determination. They responded in kind.
Sasaki will keep the pictures under wraps this weekend.
“I don’t have to remind them of the disaster in Japan before the match against the United States because they know exactly,” he said.
Back home, their story has bumped baseball and sumo off the sports front pages.
“They’re not just playing a soccer game, they’re playing to heal a wounded country,” said Tony DiCicco, the U.S. coach of the 1999 World Cup-winning team. “They have won fans not just in Japan and not just here in Germany, but all over the world.”