TOKYO Japan gave its women's soccer team the rock star treatment on Tuesday on their return from an astonishing World Cup triumph in Germany.
Unused to the fanfare, the players filed quietly through the airport arrivals lobby in Tokyo, squinting as hundreds of excited fans snapped away with cameras.
"It hadn't sunk in that we'd won the World Cup until we landed at Narita airport," Japan captain Homare Sawa, the tournament's MVP and leading scorer, told reporters.
"I'd never seen so many people come to greet us," added the talismanic leader of Japan's "Nadeshiko" -- named after a type of frilly pink carnation, symbolizing grace and stoicism. "It was amazing."
Japan's world-beating women then faced a media crush of around 300 reporters, the World Cup, Sawa's MVP and Golden Ball and the Fair Play trophy gleaming in front of them.
Winners of Asia's first world soccer title at any level, the occasion got to many of the players who had shocked the United States on penalties in Sunday's final in Frankfurt.
Even Sawa, the scorer of 80 goals in 173 internationals, fluffed her lines, sitting down before being told and jumping to her feet, covering her mouth with her hands in embarrassment.
"I heard a rumor there would be a lot of people but this is like an event for the men's team," said coach Norio Sasaki. "It's a new piece of history for the Nadeshiko."
'SPIRIT AND SOLIDARITY'
Showing few signs of fatigue after their dream run in Germany and long flight home, Sasaki and his players paid their respects to the victims of the deadly tsunami in March.
"Hopefully we were able to give an emotional boost to the victims of disaster," he said. "But it doesn't stop here for us and we must qualify for next year's London Olympics first."
Japan stunned hosts and holders Germany in the quarter-finals before upsetting Sweden to set up a final against the powerful Americans.
Sawa said a 2-0 defeat by England in the group stage had provided Japan with the wake-up call they needed.
"Losing to England was the turning point," said the veteran of five World Cups. "It forced up to think what we needed to fix in order to beat Germany and Sweden.
"We felt the incredible support from Japan and we also wanted to give some power and courage and energy to the people suffering after the disaster."
Sawa said Japan's women would not rest on their laurels.
"There is an amazing spirit and solidarity in this team," she said. "We have never won an Olympic title so that is our next goal."
Sasaki said he hoped the team would be an inspiration for those still struggling to come to terms with the earthquake and tsunami.
"When Sawa scored to get us to penalties, I was grinning from ear to ear and wanted to crack a joke but I had to bite my tongue and decide the order of kickers," he said.
"Sawa just said, 'I'm not taking one!' and that made everyone laugh. We proved women's soccer has the power to move people. I hope it encourages people to be just like our Nadeshiko." (Editing by Peter Rutherford)