FRANKFURT - Goalkeeper Hope Solo had kept the United States alive in the World Cup tournament with one scintillating performance after another but she knew she was up against more than just 11 women from Japan on Sunday.
The never-say-die team from Japan played their hearts out and stunned the dominating Americans in the final, winning 3-1 on penalties after twice rallying with late equalisers first in regulation time and then in extra-time.
"We lost to a great team, we really did," Solo was quoted saying on the USA soccer team website.
"I truly believe that something bigger was pulling for this team," Solo added, referring to an outpouring of support around the world for the team in the wake of the tsunami disaster.
Japan played with awe-inspiring energy throughout the tournament and upset one giant after another - including defending champions and hosts Germany in the quarter-finals and perennial powerhouse Sweden in the semi-finals.
Twice on Sunday the Japanese women - all of whom were at least a head shorter than the Americans - found ways to get the ball post Solo with dramatic late efforts.
Aya Miyama equalised in the 81st minute to send the match to extra-time and captain Homara Sawa equalised again at 2-2 in the 117th minute.
"As much as I've always wanted this, if there were any other team I could give this to it would have to be Japan," Solo added. "I'm happy for them and they do deserve it."
'SO MUCH SELF-CONFIDENCE'
Before winning four of their six matches in this year's World Cup in Germany, Japan had only once got passed the group stage in the World Cup - in 1995 where they were beaten 4-0 by the United States in the quarter-finals.
In five World Cups between 1991 and 2007, Japan had won just three of 16 matches.
"We're so happy about the title and so happy that we stayed in the tournament so long," said Homare Sawa, Japan's captain who won the Golden Ball as the top player and the Golden Boot.
"Now we're number one," Sawa added. "We had so much self-confidence all the way to the end and we all believed in ourselves all the way. That's why we won deservedly."
After the improbable victory, the Japanese women carried a giant banner around the pitch that read: "To our friends around the world - thank you for your support."
U.S. coach Pia Sundhage said her team had played better than it did in previous matches in the tournament but squandered chances had cost them dearly.
"It's hard to lose on penalties," she said.
"They kept possession better than in the other games we played. But we couldn't put away our chances. We created a lot of good chances in the first half.
"It's a final. There's a small difference between winning and losing."
Striker Abby Wambach said the Japanese women would not be stopped.
"It's obviously heartbreaking," she said. "Japan played well and never gave up. Evidently it wasn't meant to be. We worked so hard. We believed in each other through everything.
"This is going to hurt for a while and I'm proud of our team. We never gave up. Congratulations to the Japan team. I think their country is very, very proud of them.
"Japan just kept coming and they never gave up, and in the end they're the world champs."comments