Japan defender Aya Sameshima (15), defender Azusa Iwashimizu (center)… (Odd Andersen / AFP / Getty…)
It has been a long journey for Homare Sawa and a harrowing one for Aya Sameshima.
On Sunday, though, it will reach its conclusion when the two Japanese players take the field against the U.S. in the final of the 2011 Women's World Cup in Frankfurt, Germany.
If Japan wins and becomes world champion, it is difficult to know which player will deserve it more —Sawa, Asia's brightest star, or Sameshima, who since March 11 has represented the hope that all of Japan clings to in the wake of an unthinkable disaster.
The world has long known Sawa and has long praised her talent.
"She hunts down the ball, she's the fulcrum of Japan's build-up play, and she scores goals too. She's definitely one of the most complete players around."
That was Tina Theune, Germany's 2003 World Cup-winning coach, speaking to FIFA.com earlier this week about Sawa.
Sameshima, 24, doesn't have quotes such as that being voiced about her. What she does have is a story.
For most of the past five years, since 2006, the defender played for a soccer club named Tepco Mareeze, owned by the Tokyo Electric Power Co., and also worked at the company's Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.
On March 11, when the devastating earthquake and tsunami struck northern Japan, it also caused a string of accidents at the nuclear plant, forcing widespread evacuation and causing Sameshima's club to cease operations.
The disaster left 25,000 dead or missing.
As luck would have it, Sameshima was training with the national team in southern Japan when the earthquake struck, but the events of March 11 have been the spur that has taken her and the rest of the Nadeshiko — the name comes from a pink flower emblematic of Japanese femininity and beauty — to Sunday's final.
At each game, Japan's players display a banner thanking the world for its support of their earthquake-ravaged country.
"As players, there is nothing much we can do for Japan, but we want to do as well as we can to help our country," said Sawa, the team's captain and on-field inspiration.
Norio Sasaki, Japan's coach, said the players are aware that their success in Germany has lifted spirits back home.
"I think what we have been doing, so far, is very good for Japan," he said. "So many victims were hit by the disaster. Even little things, like a win, can give people courage and hope."
Japan, ranked fourth in the world, has played some of the brightest and most attractive soccer in the 16-nation tournament and surprised many by eliminating Germany and Sweden en route to the final.
At the heart of the quick-passing, possession-oriented side is Sawa, 32, a two-time Asian player of the year who is playing in her fifth World Cup.
"She is the undisputed leader of our team," Sasaki told Agence France-Presse. "She symbolizes exactly the style of football our team should play. … She symbolizes the entire history of women's football in Japan.
"She is a player with enormous capabilities in terms of her ability to win the ball and keep possession. She fights for the ball and can immediately counterattack."
But Sawa, with four goals in five games in the tournament, is not the only one with offensive prowess. Fellow midfielders Aya Miyama, Kozue Ando and Nahomi Kawasumi have all played their part, as have forwards Shinobu Ohno and Karina Maruyama.
In other words, the U.S. will not find Sunday's task a simple one. Japan, said American forward Lauren Cheney, is "a phenomenal technical team."
Shutting out Germany for 120 minutes showed that the Japanese can defend too.
They "keep it really tight when they have the ball, and that means they don't have to switch things round very much if they lose possession, because their positioning is superb," said Theune, the Germans' former coach.
Nor will the Americans' superior height and physical strength necessarily be an advantage, as Sweden Coach Thomas Dennerby pointed out.
"When the ball is on the ground, it doesn't matter how tall your players are," he said. "It's not basketball."
Japan plays the game the way it is intended to be played.
"Our focus is on ball control and good passes, good combinations," Sasaki said. "Everybody has got to be involved; if they're not, we cannot perform at international level. So that's where we place the focus.
"Everybody on the team has been playing football since they were little. Football was always their dream, and their dream was to make the final."
And the outcome? Well, think back to what Sasaki said before Japan's semifinal victory over Sweden:
"Only the god of football knows who will win."