LONDON -- It’s not just about the gold medal. It’s about redemption.
The women’s soccer tournament couldn’t ask for a better finale. United States vs. Japan. Rematch of the World Cup final. Wembley Stadium. Quite possibly the largest crowd ever to watch women play the sport at the Olympics.
And an American team flush with passion, bent on mending the heartache from a penalty kick shootout loss to the Japanese in Frankfurt 13 months ago.
"I’ve been hoping for this final," U.S. forward Abby Wambach said, "from the moment I stepped off the podium in Germany."
The Americans got a hero’s welcome for their second-place finish from fans enthralled by the come-from-behind cliffhangers and engaging personalities. Brave faces were in order. The kudos were nice, but coach and players were bummed out. Coach Pia Sundhage went home to Sweden and tuned out soccer completely for a while. Hope Solo went on "Dancing With the Stars."
The passage of time helped a little. Winning the gold on Thursday would do so much more.
"It’s definitely redemption," midfielder Carli Lloyd said. "But it’s also an opportunity, an opportunity to show the world that we’re the No. 1 team."
The Americans are still ranked No. 1 and are the two-time defending Olympic champions. They have the deepest, most talented team in the tournament. By contrast, Japan’s World Cup triumph was a
But the Nadeshiko were worthy of the title, playing disciplined, tactical and savvy soccer. The savviness returned at the Olympics, when coach Norio Sasaki told his players to deliberately try not to score during a game against South Africa because a victory would have required extra travel. It’s a tactic Sundhage said she would never try.
Japan also has a chance to become the first team to win the World Cup and Olympics in back-to-back years.
If Thursday’s news conferences are any indication, Japan is the more relaxed team headed into the rematch. Sasaki and his players laughed, smiled and cracked jokes throughout. Through a translator, the coach introduced goalkeeper Miho Fukumoto as a "goddess." When asked to explain, he laughed and realized the word lost something from Japanese to English because he was trying to make a pun.
Sasaki acknowledged the Americans perhaps "have a greater incentive" to win after last year’s result, so he said his challenge is to see "how much stronger we can make our incentive to have a win and beat the United States."