Keeping Score

Japan Beats U.S. in Thrilling Women’s World Cup Final

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Thorsten Wagner / Getty Images

Players of Japan celebrates after winning the FIFA Womens's World Cup Final at FIFA Word Cup stadium on July 17, 2011 in Frankfurt am Main, Germany.

Thank you, ladies of Japan and the United States. Thanks to you, the next time someone whines about the lack of excitement in soccer, we get to punch that person in the face.

No matter what side you were rooting for, no matter your preconceived notions about what the rest of the world has long embraced as the beautiful game, the women’s World Cup final between Japan and the United States, which the Japanese won on penalty kicks after a 2-2 deadlock, had your heart fluttering. Or your vocal chords stretching. Or your hands clutching your hair, your mouth wide-open, your facial expression asking everyone around you: “can you believe this?”

The beauty of soccer, thousands of Americans learned yesterday, actually lies in the scarcity of scoring chances. Every shot becomes a breathtaking event, and if you’ve got a golden opportunity, you’d better convert. The U.S. dominated the ball against Japan, and was undoubtedly the more talented team. But they blew too many scoring chances – the U.S. outshot Japan, 27-14 – and let the nonplussed Japanese hang around. So the U.S. returns home bitterly disappointed, still without a World Cup title since the glory days of 1999.

The “shoulda-couldas” started early in the game. In the 8th minute, for example, midfielder Megan Rapinoe, a super-sub the last few games who got the starting nod against Japan, crossed the ball to Lauren Cheney, who was streaking towards the near post. This time, she couldn’t convert.

(PHOTOS: Stunning Women’s World Cup Action)

A few minutes later, Rapinoe herself sent another makeable shot wide. In the 29th minute, Abby Wambach fired a beautiful ball across the goalmouth. But it rose a little too high, and bounced off the crossbar. Wambach was more unlucky than underperforming on that shot. Unfortunately, the same couldn’t be said for Cheney, again, five minutes later. The U.S. lofted a ball into the penalty area, and Japanese goalkeeper Ayumi Kaihori unwisely left her line, giving Cheney an opening. But she headed it too high.

If soccer were scored by judges, the U.S. would have ended the first half with a comfortable lead. Instead, the reality was much more stark for the Americans. U.S. 0, Japan 0. Just 45 minutes left to play – at least- and it was still anyone’s game.

Until the 69th minute, that is. Rapinoe, whose deft passing and all-out style won her many admirers during this World Cup, lofted a perfect ball ahead to Alex Morgan, who at 22 is the youngest player on the U.S. team. Morgan had replaced Cheney to start the second half, a smart tactical move by U.S. coach Pia Sundhage. Morgan’s left-footed shot was sweetness: finally, the U.S. got the goal they should have scored ages ago. Given how the Americans had controlled the game – to this point, Japan had barely tested U.S. goalkeeper Hope Solo – there was no reason to think this wouldn’t be the game-winner.

But all it takes in sports is one screw-up. That came courtesy of the U.S. defense, in the 81st minute. The U.S. failed to clear the ball out of their own penalty area. Alex Krieger tried a particularly meek left-footed clear, but Japan’s Aya Miyama intercepted it, and scored the game-tying goal. Japan still had life. The game was headed for a 30-minute extra session.

(MORE: Women’s World Cup: Five Things to Watch for in USA vs. Japan)

Here, the head of Abby Wambach, which scored huge goals in each of the past two U.S. World Cup wins, was set to be the hero once again. Fourteen minutes into the extra session, Morgan dribbled the ball near the end line and fired a bullet at Wambach, standing at the top of the goal box. The ball ricocheted off her head and into the net. Finally, the game-winner, right? Get that head an agent: Letterman, SNL, the Tonight Show were about to come calling.

Yet given all Japan has endured these past few months, maybe we shouldn’t be shocked that its soccer team would bounce back, again. With just four or so minutes left to play in the game, off a corner kick, Homare Sawa, Japan’s best player who was participating in her fifth World Cup, somehow got a shot on net while her momentum was carrying her away from the goal. The effort defied all physics, and the ball shot past Solo, giving Japan an incredible tie.

Moments later, Wambach’s foot had one last chance to seal it for the Americans. But her head was better on this day. A point-blank shot, courtesy of a Heather O’Reilly cross, sailed wide right. Time for penalty kicks, and more agonizing drama.

Incredible.

Luck caught up to the Americans in the penalty session. On the first try, a shot from American midfielder Shannon Boxx went to the right. So did Japanese goaltender Kaihori; her foot caught a piece of the ball, deflecting it away. Aya Miyama then slowly walked to the ball, let Solo make the wrong guess early – the U.S. goaltender cheated to her right – before flicking it in, giving Japan a 1-0 penalty kick advantage. Japan seemed more relaxed going into the shootout, and it showed. It was a leisurely shot, almost a cakewalk. And, it turns out, a sign of things to come for Japan.

Because the U.S. imploded. Carli Lloyd sent her shot into the stands, over the crossbar. Solo saved the second Japanese shot. But on America’s third attempt Tobin Heath, whose pre-shot body language screamed “why me?,” shot a softie: Kaihori saved it. With one more Japanese goal, the Americans would need a miracle.

Japan got that next goal, and after a Wambach score, Japan still led, 2-1, with only one American attempt remaining. If Saki Kumagai put in Japan’s fourth try, Japan would have its first World Cup, and first win over the United States in 26 tries. Solo tried to psyche out Kumagai by extending her pre-shot stretching routine. The gamesmanship seemed desperate.  Kumagai shot the ball over Solo, into the back of the net.  The shocker was now complete.

The TV broadcast showed Japanese fans, in an auditorium south of Tokyo, going nuts in the pre-dawn hours. Japan, still reeling from the March earthquake and tsunami that killed over 15,000 people, needed a lift, and received quite a gift. Its soccer team could have cowered to the taller, stronger Americans. But it never did, and the Americans paid for it.

The sport – both the men’s and women’s versions – will only profit from this dramatic World Cup. This game will be the subject of much water-cooler chatter. Americans had every reason to fall for soccer on this summer Sunday.

Why not just let the love last?

Sean Gregory is a staff writer at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @seanmgregory. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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