With all the emotion, excitement and attention the U.S. women's soccer team stirred up last Sunday with its improbable victory over Brazil in the World Cup, it didn't seem possible that could be topped. But we should have known better. That was, after all, only the quarterfinals.
The Americans ousted France in the semifinal on Wednesday (in regulation, yawn), setting the stage for what appeared to be their coronation this past Sunday, against a Japanese team they had never lost to in 25 games, and had beaten twice already this year. Certainly, Wheaties boxes and appearances on David Letterman and The View were already in the works for Hope, Abby, Alex, Megan and rest of these ladies our country was suddenly on a first-name basis with.
I have to admit I fell under the spell, too. As I sat in a packed Manhattan sports bar (and I had to wait for a seat, by the way) watching the second half before my shift at the New York Post Sunday, I was conjuring back-page headlines for the victory that seemed assured when Alex Morgan scored the game's first goal in the 69th minute.
"American Splendor," "American Beauty" and "U.S. Yea!" were the three that immediately came to mind. Even after the Japanese scored to send the game into extra time, it seemed destiny would have its say, and so it was when Abby Wambach's header gave the U.S. the lead with only 16 minutes to kill.
But as we found out, destiny all depends on your perspective, and which side of the Pacific Ocean you live on. Turns out the Japanese trumped the U.S. on this one; with every victory throughout the tournament, the overachieving Nadeshiko were healing hearts and minds in their tsunami- and earthquake-ravaged homeland.
After each win, they would raise a banner that read, "To our friends around the world -- thank you for your support." In return, their coach, Norio Sasaki, said, "We wanted to use this opportunity to thank the people back home for the support that has been given."
Even U.S. goalkeeper and erstwhile media darling in waiting Hope Solo was driven to say, "I truly believe that something bigger was pulling for that team. And as much as I've always wanted this, if there's a team I could give it to, it'd be Japan."
It can be argued instead of the Japanese taking it, the Americans gave it away. The U.S. took 27 shots to Japan's 14, and hit two goalposts and one crossbar in regulation before the final dagger: the Americans missed their first three penalty kicks (kudos to Japanese goalkeeper Ayumi Kaihori for her kick save against Shannon Boxx), which gave Solo no chance to win it for them.
So perhaps fate did have a hand -- or foot -- in what happened here. I'm reminded of the words of the late John Bauer, a legendary high school football coach I used to cover in Randolph, N.J. It was a rarity when his team lost, but whenever it did, the first thing he'd say, nodding to the opposition, was, "They've got to eat, too."
And how about this: I wonder if anyone standing in the war-torn ruins of bombed-out Frankfurt in 1945 could have even fathomed that one day nearly 70 years later, an international sporting event would be played between the United States and Japan ... there, on German soil? Probably not.
Which might be fate's greatest act of all.