Soccer: Japan's "steel carnations" win hearts in defeat

TOKYO Thu Aug 9, 2012 11:38pm EDT

The Japan team wave and bow to the crowd after losing their women's soccer final gold medal match against the U.S. at Wembley Stadium during the London 2012 Olympic Games August 9, 2012. REUTERS/Mike Blake

The Japan team wave and bow to the crowd after losing their women's soccer final gold medal match against the U.S. at Wembley Stadium during the London 2012 Olympic Games August 9, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Mike Blake

TOKYO (Reuters) - Japanese soccer fans began their Friday bleary-eyed, many having shed tears but most philosophical, after the world champions were beaten 2-1 by the United States in the women's Olympic soccer final in London.

As hundreds of supporters wearing Japan soccer shirts, faces still painted in national red and white, rolled out of bars around 6 a.m. local time, an impromptu party broke out on Tokyo's iconic Shibuya "scramble" crossroads.

"Gold, silver - it doesn't matter. Japan were the best team," 32-year-old chef Kensuke Arai told Reuters as revelers danced in front of police and early commuters.

Japan's "Nadeshiko" team, named after a frilly pink carnation, embodied the iron-willed spirit of a nation battling to recover from disaster as they won last year's World Cup.

Having shocked the mighty U.S. on penalties in the Frankfurt final, they were unlucky not to topple their powerful opponents again in Thursday's Olympic showdown.

Twice rattling the crossbar and also having a strong penalty claimed waved away, Japan were even described by U.S. coach Pia Sundhage as the better team.

Japan's media, yet to reach print but crackling online, praised their pint-sized warriors for their heart.

"Stand tall, silver medallists!" blazed the Nikkan Sports newspaper, while the Sankei Sports ran the headline "Fierce Fight", referring to Japan's refusal to accept defeat.

Tears of joy shed for their astonishing World Cup win in July last year were tinged with sadness as Japan confronted the aftermath of the deadly tsunami and a raging nuclear crisis.

There was no fairytale repeat, but Japan's players took defeat on the chin as the Americans claimed a third successive Olympic title.

"We wanted the gold, but no regrets," said Japan's world player of the year Homare Sawa before the Olympic medal ceremony, repeated on morning television shows.

Japanese fans, many setting off for work after a quick shower and change of clothes, refused to blame the referee or make excuses, and had nothing but praise for their beaten heroines.

"You can't help but love them," 21-year-old student Yuria Sato, who had almost screamed herself hoarse. "They never give up. I was crying after the game but just so proud."

Succinctly summing up the mood of the Japan players, the Mainichi newspaper said: "Every ounce spent: Tears and smiles."

Japan's petite musketeers, at an average height of 1.62m standing seven cm shorter than the muscular Americans, at least look set to fly home in style.

Japanese Olympic officials were accused of sex discrimination before the Games for allowing the men's team to fly in business class while the women had to make do with premium economy.

"It was a fantastic game," said coach Norio Sasaki after what could be his last game in charge.

"It was not the result we wanted but it's been an incredible four years."

(Reporting by Alastair Himmer; Editing by Daniel Magnowski)

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