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Women's World Cup victories boost Japan's morale

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Ding Xu/Xinhua/Newscom

(Read caption) Homare Sawa (above) of Japan celebrates her goal with her teammates during the semifinal against Sweden at the 2011 FIFA Women's World Cup in Frankfurt, Germany, July 13.

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Hungry for some good news after the devastating March 11 earthquake and tsunami – and the resulting, ongoing nuclear crisis – the country has latched on to the success of the Japan women’s national soccer team as it reached its first World Cup final by defeating Sweden 3-1.

“When you’re in a tough spot, think of the disaster victims and give it your all,” team coach Norio Sasaki told his players before Wednesday night’s semi-final against Sweden.

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A tough spot was exactly where Japan found itself after going behind to an early goal following an uncharacteristic mistake from captain Homare Sawa, a veteran of five world cups. Ms. Sawa redeemed herself in the second half by putting Japan in the lead with a goal, in between two goals by teammate Nahomi Kawasumi.

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Public broadcaster NHK had been covering the women’s team from the beginning of the tournament, with interest growing from the rest of the media as Nadeshiko Japan – as the team is called after a flower that is said to embody the ideal of Japanese femininity – has progressed to its first medal in a World Cup.

With the semifinal airing at 3:45 a.m. local time Thursday, bleary-eyed Tokyoites who had got up to watch the game were handed special editions of newspapers rushed out to commemorate the team’s victory as they made their way to work.

Coverage of the team has constantly referred to the "give it your all" mantra that has been rediscovered since the March disasters, with players dedicating their victories to the victims in post-match interviews.

The team’s success has been particularly poignant for defender Aya Sameshima who played her club soccer for TEPCO Mareeze, the company team of the operator of the stricken Fukushima nuclear plant. Ms. Sameshima and the rest of club’s players worked part-time at the Daiichi plant when they weren’t training.

The club was based at the J Village facility until March 11 when it became an emergency dormitory for crews working at the Fukushima Daiichi plant a few miles up the coast.

TEPCO Mareeze has pulled out of Japan’s women’s league this season, and Sameshima joined the Boston Breakers of the US Women’s Professional Soccer league in March.

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Ranked fourth in the world, Japan will meet the United States – a team it’s yet to beat in over 20 encounters – in Sunday night’s final in Germany.