No. 3: U.S. and Japan’s Women’s Soccer

Four months after a devastating earthquake that killed more than 18,000 and left millions homeless, Japan’s women’s soccer team produced one of the most dramatic and uplifting triumphs of the year.

A message to supporters
Before and after each game at the Women’s World Cup in Germany, the Japanese women charmed the crowds by unfurling a banner with a message to fans around the world, thanking them for rallying behind Japan in the troubled times that followed its brutal natural disaster.

It was widely expected that the Japanese team’s involvement in the World Cup games would end as soon as it faced one of the bigger soccer powers. Japan, however, stunned Germany, its host nation and a tournament favorite, with a superb 1-0 victory in the quarterfinal, then brushed past Sweden to clinch a place in the title game.

The U.S. team, full of confidence and brimming with superstars like Abby Wambach and Hope Solo, waited for its turn. Most people predicted a comfortable win for the Americans.

Fighting to even the score
But when the U.S. missed a series of opportunities in the first half, Japan’s confidence grew, and the team worked its way back into the game. Aya Miyama’s strike with 10 minutes left leveled the scores and forced the final extra time. Once again, the U.S. positioned itself on the verge of victory, thanks to a headed goal from Wambach, but Japan fought back.

Homare Sawa produced a magnificent flick with the outside of her right foot from a corner kick, with just four minutes remaining. The final was headed for penalty kicks.

Uplifted, Japan cruised through the ensuing shootout when the stunned Americans missed their first three kicks. Cue tears of emotion from Japan’s disbelieving players and mass celebrations back home.

“We knew that what we were doing here could be about a little more than just a football tournament,” Sawa said. “If winning this makes one person, someone who lost something or someone or was hurt or damaged by the events that touched our country, feel better for even one moment, then we have really achieved a most special thing.”

Yahoo! Sports general assignment writer/reporter Martin Rogers spent seven years as a soccer writer for the London Daily Mirror, covering the English Premier League, UEFA Champions League, UEFA Cup, and international soccer. A journalism graduate from Harlow College, he is now based in Los Angeles and covers soccer, boxing, golf, and the Olympics.