England defender Laura Bassett was inconsolable as she lay face down on the field, sobbing.
Japanese players gathered at the other end of the field in celebration – and relief – in realizing how close they came to squandering a chance to defend their Women’s World Cup title.
After Japan was outplayed for much of the second half, a turn of Bassett’s foot followed by a fortunate bounce off the crossbar led to an own goal in the final minute of stoppage time that allowed Japan pull out a 2-1 victory in the semifinal Wednesday. Japan will travel to Vancouver to face the United States on Sunday in a rematch of the 2011 championship game in Germany.
“Oh, what a tough one, what a tough one to take,” a red-eyed England coach Mark Sampson said. “I can’t speak about the game. I can only speak about how incredibly proud I am of my group.”
Japan coach Norio Sasaki acknowledged there were several tense moments when England could have scored in the second half.
“But that’s the game of soccer,” Sasaki said through a translator. “And at the end, we were able to obtain such a dramatic goal.”
Nahomi Kawasumi drove up the right side and sent a cross into the middle for Yuki Ogimi. Bassett was in full stride when she reached out with her right foot, caught the ball flush and inadvertently directed it toward her net. The ball struck the crossbar and bounced in just before goalkeeper Karen Bardsley could get across.
“I was very happy,” said player of the match Saori Ariyoshi, referring to watching the ball go in. “Well, we did it. That’s how I felt.”
It was a withering moment for England, which had no time – or energy – to gather itself and make a comeback.
After the final whistle, Bassett lay on the field and had to be helped off by her teammates and Sampson.
“It really was a horrible moment obviously for Laura, but you could see the regard in which the team hold Laura,” Sampson said. “OK, she’s hurting now, but tomorrow morning she’ll wake up, she’ll have 22 teammates and a group of staff give her a hug and tell her how proud we are of her.”
It was a torturous finish for the sixth-ranked Lionesses, who have made their deepest run in four World Cup appearances. England had never won an elimination game until this year.
England will remain in Edmonton to play top-ranked Germany in the third-place match Saturday. Germany lost 2-0 to the United States on Tuesday.
Japan will be facing what’s become a familiar foe in the U.S. with a championship on the line. It beat the Americans on penalty kicks after a 2-2 draw in the 2011 World Cup final.
The U.S. responded by beating Japan 2-1 to win the gold medal at the 2012 London Games. Overall, the U.S. is 24-1-6 against Japan.
“Only the god knows the outcome,” Sasaki said, looking ahead to Sunday. “And Japan needs to build up on our power. And that’s what I take away from this game.”
The teams traded penalty kick goals seven minutes apart in the first half.
Aya Miyama opened the scoring in the 33rd minute by driving the ball into the open left corner while Bardsley guessed the wrong way.
The Lionesses responded on Fara Williams’ penalty kick in the 40th minute. She threaded a shot just inside the left post, barely out of the reach of diving keeper Ayumi Kaihori.
England then had the Japanese on their heels during a four-minute span of the second half.
Toni Duggan, from just inside the penalty area, had her line-drive kick go off the crossbar in the 62nd minute. A minute later, Ellen White was set up in the middle, and got a shot off that Kaihori punched away.
And in the 66th minute, Jill Scott headed Williams’ corner kick just wide of the left post.
“There was nothing more our team could’ve done today to put that ball in the back of the net,” Sampson said. “So credit Japan for hanging on in there, finding a way to get themselves through to a final. But this team has shown the world what it’s capable of.”
The game was played on Canada Day – the nation’s 148th birthday – in front of a slow-arriving crowd. The attendance was announced at 31,467 in a stadium that holds more than 53,000. The crowd would’ve been would have been much larger had England not eliminated the host country in the quarterfinals last weekend.
The Lionesses have already created a buzz back home as just the third English team – including the men – to reach a World Cup semifinal, joining the 1966 champion and 1990 men’s squads.
England began the day by receiving a royal pep talk from Prince William, who spoke to the players and staff by phone.
Manchester United and English national team captain Wayne Rooney has become a fan. Rooney posted a note of support on his Twitter account Wednesday, writing in part: “We’re all behind you, let’s go one step closer and get to the final.”