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Japan's women eye Olympic gold to add to football World Cup; France has other idea

08/05/2012 02:28 EDT | Updated 10/05/2012 05:12 EDT
LONDON - Japan's expectations are building that its women's soccer team will win Olympic gold to add to the World Cup it won a year ago. But to stand a chance, the champions must first beat a French team on Monday intent on causing a shock in its second tournament semifinal in a row.

A win for Japan could set up a final with the United States, which is desperate to avenge its loss to Japan in the 2011 World Cup in Germany. Going home with gold would cement Japan's 12-year transformation from a regional soccer power to a global one.

The team's World Cup triumph triggered celebrations and a burst of national pride in Japan, which was hungry for good news in the aftermath of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami.

"It is important for us to win the Olympics, as it is important for Japanese women's football and the future," said Japanese goalkeeper Miho Fukumoto. "After winning the World Cup, it became popular and more people started to support women's football. They expect us to win here, that is why it is important to win this time again."

Japan beat pre-tournament favourites Brazil 2-0 in the quarterfinals, delivering a clinical performance anchored by FIFA player of the year, midfielder Homare Sawa. Brazil's flair players had most of the possession but were unable to create chances against a well-drilled defence and solid midfield.

France goes into the match in the knowledge it can beat Japan, albeit it when the stakes were low.

The two teams met in a friendly on July 19th that France won 2-0. Japan's coach Sasaki Norio, who led the team to victory in Germany, said the players had learned from that defeat.

"We were really disappointed after that match, but now we have more confidence," he said.

France was the surprise package in Germany, reaching the semifinals where it lost to the United States 3-1.

Led by playmaker Louisa Necib and speedy strikers Elodie Thomis and Marie-Laure Delie, the team beat Sweden 2-1 to set up Monday's match.

"We're confident, we're so happy to be here and tomorrow's match is going to be so important for us because a place in the final is at stake," said defender Sonia Bompastor. "We're not thinking too much about the World Cup. This is something completely new for all of us."

France's assistant coach Andre Barthelemy said Japan was a well organized team, and dismissed the importance of the friendly.

"This will be a completely different game because it is in the real competition," he said. "Every country wants to win the gold medal, so we know it will be a really tough game."

Both teams agree on something ahead of the match — the thrill of playing at Wembley, the home of football.

"When I was young I saw a TV commercial about Wembley, so I have been dreaming about coming here," said Norio. "I could not come here as a player, but now as a coach I am here, so I am really, really proud and happy."

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