Football: Japan exit Women’s World Cup with 2-1 last-8 loss to Sweden

Japan’s women’s football team exited the World Cup with a 2-1 loss to Sweden following a nail-biting finish to their quarterfinal Friday at Auckland’s Eden Park.

Sweden led 2-0 before substitute Honoka Hayashi breathed life back into Japan’s campaign in the 87th minute, with the 2011 champions pushing desperately for an equalizer during more than 10 minutes of stoppage time.

Amanda Ilestedt gave world No. 3 Sweden the lead in the 32nd minute, and Filippa Angeldal doubled the margin from the penalty spot six minutes into the second half.

Japan’s Riko Ueki rocked the crossbar with a 76th-minute penalty, and Aoba Fujino later blasted the woodwork from a free kick before Hayashi struck from close range for manager Futoshi Ikeda’s 11th-ranked side.

Despite fighting their way back into the contest, Nadeshiko Japan hamstrung themselves by allowing Sweden to dominate early and failing to convert opportunities, said captain Saki Kumagai, the only remaining member of the victorious 2011 squad.

“In the end, there were plenty of chances to turn it around,” the Roma defender said. “If the defense had held its ground, there would have been chances up front.”

After addressing his crestfallen players on the pitch, Ikeda spoke of his pride in a young team who exceeded expectations and energized the tournament by scoring 14 goals and conceding just once on their way to the quarterfinals.

“Fighting to the end is something they can be proud of,” Ikeda said. “They showed us what Nadeshiko Japan is all about.”

Japan, who dispatched Norway 3-1 in Saturday’s last-16 clash, were attempting to reach the semifinals of the tournament for the first time since they finished runners-up to the United States in 2015.

They had their hands full in the first half against a physically imposing Swedish outfit coming off a penalty shootout victory over two-time defending champions the United States.

Japan captain Saki Kumagai communicates with her teammates after Sweden’s second goal in their Women’s World Cup quarterfinal football match at Eden Park in Auckland, New Zealand, on Aug. 11, 2023. (Kyodo)

The Asian side survived a scare in the 25th minute when Kumagai miscued her attempt to intercept a high ball toward the box, gifting Swedish striker Stina Blackstenius a clear shot that she sprayed wide.

Sweden went ahead in the aftermath of a free kick, with Ilestedt netting from close range after the Japanese defense repeatedly failed to clear the ball from the area.

The Europeans continued to attack via the long ball and generated another chance late in the half that midfielder Angeldal could not turn into a shot on target.

Swedish captain Kosovare Asllani nearly doubled the lead close to halftime when her shot ricocheted across the goal mouth after being parried into the post by diving Japanese keeper Ayaka Yamashita.

Japan’s Aoba Fujino (R) dribbles the ball during the first half of their Women’s World Cup quarterfinal football match at Eden Park in Auckland, New Zealand, on Aug. 11, 2023. (Kyodo)

Peter Gerhardsson’s side started the second half brightly, with Johanna Kaneryd quickly forcing Yamashita into an acrobatic save in the 47th minute.

Sweden earned their penalty from the ensuing corner, but not until play was stopped at the other end of the pitch for a video review. Japan midfielder Fuka Nagano was called for handball after the ball deflected into her hand as she leaped to defend the set piece.

Second-half substitute Ueki won the penalty for Japan after going down in the area amid protests from Swedish players. She beat keeper Zecira Musovic with her spot kick but found the underside of the bar, with the ball bouncing agonizingly close to the goal line.

Japan’s Riko Ueki (9) reacts to her missed penalty kick against Sweden during the second half of their Women’s World Cup football quarterfinal match at Eden Park in Auckland, New Zealand, on Aug. 11, 2023. (Kyodo)

With endurance increasingly a factor, Japan began to string together more of the dynamic attacking play that characterized their progress to the last eight against a backpedaling Swedish defense.

Soon after Fujino narrowly missed with her free kick, Sweden failed to deal with an attempt from Kiko Seike, allowing Hayashi to pounce for her first international goal.

Japan continued applying the pressure throughout stoppage time but could not find an equalizer before full time was blown in the 101st minute.

“I want to express my gratitude to the teammates who fought alongside me,” an emotional Kumagai said. “I wanted to keep going with them a little longer. We wanted to advance.”

By Dr Muhammad Hussain