LONDON – Japan's women's soccer team lost a game but gained a worldwide army of admirers Thursday, thanks to its touching display of class following the Olympic final.
The Japanese, winners of the Women's World Cup last year, came up just short in losing 2-1 to the United States at Wembley Stadium, and many of the players were so devastated that they wept onto the turf when the final whistle blew.
Less than 15 minutes later, though, they showed exactly how to bow out with dignity. While the Americans emerged from the locker room tunnel relishing a victory by sporting T-shirts emblazoned with a deserved boast – "Greatness Has Been Found" – Japan kept things a little more low key.
Led by captain Aya Miyama, Japan's players held hands as they walked onto the field, skipping, jumping, and smiling as they headed toward the podium, and a delighted crowd roared its approval. Once they stood on the dais, Miyama and her players leaped in the air as a victor might normally, then performed a special wave of respect to all corners of the stadium.
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Any women's team could be forgiven for snubbing FIFA president Sepp Blatter for his previous sexist comments about how women's players should wear skirts. But just like the U.S. and bronze medalist Canada, Japan accepted its medals gracefully.
After the official ceremony, the Japanese players had time for one more group hug before remaining on the field for 20 minutes to snap photos of Wembley's iconic structure and to pose with the American team, with whom they have become close friends as well as respected opponents.
Meanwhile, U.S. coach Pia Sundhage was off into the stands, standing alongside the family of captain Christie Rampone and performing an impromptu air guitar jam session as the strains of "Born in the USA" by Bruce Springsteen blared out of the stadium sound system.
Given the respect between the teams, it was no shock that the final was played in great spirit. Carli Lloyd's two goals put the Americans ahead, but Japan bounced back through Yuki Ogimi and narrowly failed to push the game into extra time late on.
The Japanese women's inspirational 2011 World Cup final victory was dedicated to the victims of the devastating tsunami that struck their country and endeared them to the world, and leading player Homare Sawa spoke during the Olympics of her gratitude for the way the soccer community had taken the squad into its collective heart.
Japan drew some criticism early in the Olympics, though, for the admission of head coach Norio Sasaki that he had told his players to play for a draw with a weak South Africa team in the group stage in order to avoid having to travel to Scotland for its quarterfinal match. It responded by beating Brazil to reach the last four, then knocked off France in the semifinal.
Whatever your thoughts on the deliberate draw, it is hard to think we will see a classier losing team at this or any other Olympics.
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