From nuclear disaster to World Cup triumph

Two of the stars of Japan's victory used to work at Fukushima. David McNeill reports on the women who have inspired a nation

Among the proudest supporters of Japan's fairytale World Cup victory against the US women's team were thousands of workers at the crippled Fukushima nuclear power plant. And for good reason: two of their former colleagues play for the national team.

The star of Japan's women's outfit may have been captain Homare Sawa, who sealed her rightful place as perhaps Asia's greatest female player with a last-minute 2-2 equaliser in Sunday's final in Frankfurt. But the tournament's most remarkable stories surely belong to Aya Sameshima and Karina Maruyama.

Maruyama, a midfielder, and Sameshima, a defender, worked at the Daiichi nuclear plant before the 11 March earthquake and tsunami that led to the world's worst nuclear crisis since Chernobyl in 1986. Both have friends still involved in the dangerous fight to clean up the disaster.

Among the more unorthodox dressing room tactics employed by Japan's coach, Norio Sasaki, were video screenings of post-meltdown Fukushima, a strategy designed to motivate the team's players. It seems to have worked: after an emotional group screening before the game against home favourites Germany last week, Maruyama went out and knocked in the giant-killing winning goal deep into extra time.

Like many Japanese, Atsushi Watanabe watched that stunning victory in tears. Unlike most, however, he knew her as a Fukushima veteran. "That's when the media started talking about her background as a plant worker, but we had been following her since the start," said Mr Watanabe, a maintenance worker who has been braving dangerously high radioactivity at the Fukushima complex since he was asked to go back to help shut it down in April. "We feel like she's one of us."

By day, Sameshima and Maruyama worked in the offices of the power plant, operated by Tokyo Electric Power Co (Tepco), and in the evenings trained with the company sponsored team, Tepco Mareeze. Among the many once unthinkable developments since 11 March has been the transformation of their former training ground into a base camp for the fight against the nuclear disaster. Instead of athletes, men in radiation suits and masks now file through the village daily on their way to and from the plant, the sort of post-apocalyptic scenario often rehearsed in manga comics.

The tale of Sameshima and Maruyama capped a victory almost too good to be true: an underdog team playing against a far superior opposition for a country struggling to recover from one of its worst natural disasters. Japan's team had lost to the United States in 25 previous encounters and its diminutive, wiry athletes were dwarfed by their opponents. The team's nickname, Nadeshiko, a sturdy pink flower, came to symbolise its players' graceful, unexpected resilience.

Few Japanese even knew the women's team had gone to Frankfurt and almost nobody expected them to win. It took Maruyama's goal against Germany to awaken the nation to the highly-charged drama inside the Japanese dressing room.

Coach Sasaki admitted that the contest had become more than about simply what happened on the field. "Usually I'm talking to the players just about soccer," he told the US cable network ESPN. "But after the disaster sometimes I also talked to them about playing for [the people of Japan], to encourage them."

Maruyama also admitted to a Japanese newspaper that she burst into tears after reading a message from a Fukushima plant worker who said her victory had "renewed our will to work and fight together". One reason for her tears, Watanabe said, was relief. "I think some of us feared that instead of being a hero she would be bashed because of her association with the plant. There is so much anger right now at what happened in Fukushima."

Sameshima too acknowledged that the tragedy back home was never far from her mind. "I want to play well for the people of Fukushima and for my team-mates who cannot play soccer [anymore]," she told ESPN. "I want to play from my heart."

That fighting spirit, and the sense that the World Cup had taken on a significance for Japan that the Americans couldn't imagine, arguably gave the smaller, weaker side the edge and lent the game an emotional, almost mythic edge. Around Tokyo, thousands crammed into bars to watch the kick-off at 3:45am, cheering wildly when Sawa scored following a corner kick two minutes from the end and forcing the game into extra time.

When Japan won on penalties, Jun Taito went wild. "It's a turning point," said the 30-year-old salaryman. "We needed something to bring us back to our feet and got it from these amazing women. They have showed us how."

"It's just so uplifting," agreed a woman who said she would spend yesterday – a national holiday – celebrating. "Of course it's only a game but they played their hearts out and somehow we lifted them up. We lifted each other up, and it's sweeter because they're women."

In Frankfurt, their joy was matched by Sawa's. "I can't believe it," said the five-time World Cup finals veteran said. "We won because we never stopped fighting until the end." Later she told Japanese reporters that the team had a simple motto: Never give up. "We thought, maybe if we play harder we can send that message to the people affected by the disaster. That's how to survive – never give up."

Sport
Karen Dunbar performs
Entertainers showcase local wit, talent and irrepressible spirit
Sport
The Pipes and Drums of The Scottish Regiments perform during the Opening Ceremony for the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games at Celtic Park on July 23, 2014 in Glasgow, Scotland.
Commonwealth GamesThe actor encouraged the one billion viewers of the event to donate to the children's charity
Voices
voicesGood for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, writes Grace Dent
Sport
Members of the Scotland deleagtion walk past during the opening ceremony of the 2014 Commonwealth Games at Celtic Park in Glasgow on July 23, 2014.
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Arts and Entertainment
The Tour de France peloton rides over a bridge on the Grinton Moor, Yorkshire, earlier this month
film
Life and Style
fashion Designs are part of feminist art project by a British student
News
Very tasty: Vladimir Putin dining alone, perhaps sensibly
news
Life and Style
Listen here: Apple EarPods offer an alternative
techAre custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?
Arts and Entertainment
Top guns: Cole advised the makers of Second World War film Fury, starring Brad Pitt
filmLt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a uniform
News
The University of California study monitored the reaction of 36 dogs
sciencePets' range of emotions revealed
News
Snoop Dogg pictured at The Hollywood Reporter Nominees' Night in February, 2013
people... says Snoop Dogg
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
News
Joining forces: young British men feature in an Isis video in which they urge Islamists in the West to join them in Iraq and Syria
newsWill the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?
Arts and Entertainment
The nomination of 'The Wake' by Paul Kingsnorth has caused a stir
books
News
i100
Life and Style
food + drinkZebra meat is exotic and lean - but does it taste good?
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

BI Manager - £50,000

£49000 - £55000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: My client is...

BI Project Manager - £48,000 - £54,000 - Midlands

£48000 - £54000 per annum + Benefits package: Progressive Recruitment: My clie...

VB.Net Developer

£35000 - £45000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: If you're pa...

SAP Business Consultant (SD, MM and FICO), £55,000, Wakefield

£45000 - £55000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: SAP Business...

Day In a Page

Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

Meet the US Army's shooting star

Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform
Climate change threatens to make the antarctic fur seal extinct

Take a good look while you can

How climate change could wipe out this seal
Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier for the terminally ill?

Farewell, my lovely

Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier?
Man Booker Prize 2014 longlist: Crowdfunded novel nominated for first time

Crowdfunded novel nominated for Booker Prize

Paul Kingsnorth's 'The Wake' is in contention for the prestigious award
Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster to ensure his meals aren't poisoned

Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster

John Walsh salutes those brave souls who have, throughout history, put their knives on the line
Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

A $25m thriller starring Sam Worthington to be made in God's Own Country
Will The Minerva Project - the first 'elite' American university to be launched in a century - change the face of higher learning?

Will The Minerva Project change the face of higher learning?

The university has no lecture halls, no debating societies, no sports teams and no fraternities. Instead, the 33 students who have made the cut at Minerva, will travel the world and change the face of higher learning
The 10 best pedicure products

Feet treat: 10 best pedicure products

Bags packed and all prepped for holidays, but feet in a state? Get them flip-flop-ready with our pick of the items for a DIY treatment
Commonwealth Games 2014: Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games

Commonwealth Games 2014

Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games
Jack Pitt-Brooke: Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism

Jack Pitt-Brooke

Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism
How Terry Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

How Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

Over a hundred rugby league players have contacted clinic to deal with mental challenges of game