LONDON — It’s not just about the gold medal. It’s about redemption.
The women’s football tournament couldn’t ask for a better finale. United States vs. Japan. Rematch of the World Cup final. Wembley Stadium. Quite possibly the largest crowd ever to watch women play the sport at the Olympics.
And an American team flush with passion, bent on mending the heartache from a penalty kick shootout loss to the Japanese in Frankfurt 13 months ago.
“I’ve been hoping for this final,” U.S. forward Abby Wambach said, “from the moment I stepped off the podium in Germany.”
The Americans got a hero’s welcome for their second-place finish from fans enthralled by the come-from-behind cliffhangers and engaging personalities. Brave faces were in order. The kudos were nice, but coach and players were bummed out. Coach Pia Sundhage went home to Sweden and tuned out football completely for a while. Hope Solo went on “Dancing With the Stars.”
The passage of time helped a little. Winning the gold on Thursday would do so much more.
“It’s definitely redemption,” midfielder Carli Lloyd said. “But it’s also an opportunity, an opportunity to show the world that we’re the No. 1 team.”
The Americans are still ranked No. 1 and are the two-time defending Olympic champions. They have the deepest, most talented team in the tournament. By contrast, Japan’s World Cup triumph was a stunner, as well as a psychological salve for a nation recovering from a triple tragedy of earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown.
But the Nadeshiko were worthy of the title, playing disciplined, tactical and savvy football. The savviness returned at these Olympics, when coach Norio Sasaki told his players to deliberately try not to score during a game against South Africa because a victory would have required extra travel. It’s a tactic Sundhage said she would never try.
Japan also has a chance to become the first team to win the World Cup and Olympics in back-to-back years.
If Thursday’s news conferences are any indication, Japan is the more relaxed team headed into the rematch. Sasaki and his players laughed, smiled and cracked jokes throughout.
Sasaki acknowledged the Americans perhaps “have a greater incentive” to win after last year’s result, so he said his challenge is to see “how much stronger we can make our incentive to have a win and beat the United States.”
Here’s a possible incentive: Maybe his players will get better seats on the plane ride home if they get the gold. The Japanese delegation was heavily criticized for putting the world champion women in economy while the men’s football team flew business class on the way to London. Midfielder Homare Sawa said at the time that it “should have been the other way around.”
Team captain Aya Miyama laughed off the subject Thursday, saying: “We’re pretty small, so it doesn’t matter.” But then she added: “When I think about a more expensive cabin, it makes me feel good.”
This isn’t one of those no-love-lost rivalries. Between the teams’ news conferences, players and coach put arms behind waists and stood in a line like buddies on the same team, the white coats of the United States alternating with the blue ones from Japan. Wambach is friends with Sawa, and they ran into each other in the Olympic village earlier in the day.
“We told each other that we were glad the other had won,” Wambach said. “Because we believe that we’re the top two teams in the world, and we believe our fans deserve to see a great final.”
Wambach also guaranteed the game wouldn’t see some of the rough play the Americans have seen from other teams in the tournament.
“They snatched our dream last year,” U.S. midfielder Megan Rapinoe said. “And still we have that respect for them.”
The Americans revived their flair for the dramatic on Monday with a last-minute win over Canada in the semifinals, and few would be surprised if the gold medal game is just as close — perhaps ending with penalty kicks once again. Sundhage said she learned a lesson from last year: The team that scores the final goal to force a shootout is usually happier and more loose, something she didn’t realize until she saw her more tense players fall flat in the shootout.
Few players are able to express the magnitude of Thursday’s game better than Wambach, who earlier this week gave an impassioned monologue about the “nightmares” from last year, how motivated she is, how the U.S. team has earned the chance to put things right.
“The truth is, this is going to be a great day,” she said. “A great day for soccer, a great day for women’s sports, and something that hopefully we’ll able to remember for the rest of our lives — and hopefully it’s in a good way.”