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                  === Fittingly, Sawa goes out a champion ===
 By Tim Keeble, Soccer Editor
 (Sports  Network)  - The  journey began  on December 6,  1993 as a 15-year-old
 Homare  Sawa  made her international  debut by  scoring four goals against the
 Nearly 18 years and more than 170 appearances later, Sawa reached the pinnacle
 of  her  career on  Sunday, scoring  her 81st international  goal in the 117th
 minute of the 2011 Women's World Cup final.
 With  Japan trailing the favored United States, 2-1, Aya Miyama drove a corner
 kick  to the near  post for Sawa, who held off a U.S. defender and flicked the
 ball neatly past goalkeeper Hope Solo, sending the game into penalty kicks.
 The  Nadeshiko won the shootout, 3-1, capping a memorable three-week quest for
 the  Cup while  also providing  Sawa  with a  fitting ending  to a  remarkable
 The  32-year-old  said  prior to  her  fifth  World  Cup  that she  wanted  to
 make  the tournament  "the result of my football career," and that she "really
 wanted to win a medal."
 But  despite the  fact that Japan entered the competition ranked fourth in the
 world,  and was placed in a favorable group along with England, Mexico and New
 Zealand, most observers gave them little chance at reaching the last four.
 And those odds got even longer when the Japanese lost their final match of the
 group  stage to England, leaving them with a quarterfinal matchup against host
 nation and two-time defending champion Germany.
 Japan  was supposed  to be another speed  bump for the Germans on their way to
 the  next round,  but  some  good possession  play  combined with  disciplined
 defending helped the Japanese get to extra time with the game tied at 0-0.
 The  score remained  the same  until the  108th minute,  when Sawa  provided a
 moment of magic that will live on for years to come.
 She  played  a well-weighted ball into  the penalty area for substitute Karina
 Maruyama,  who fired  a shot inside the far post past German goalkeeper Nadine
 Angerer that stunned the more than 26,000 fans in attendance.
 The  win was one of the biggest upsets in the history of the women's game, but
 Japan wasn't done there, recording a 3-1 victory over Sweden in the semifinals
 with Sawa providing the go-ahead goal.
 After  Sawa  scored a hat trick  in a 4-0 win  over Mexico in the group stage,
 Mexican boss Leonardo Cuellar said that "Japan will compete for the title."
 At  the  time, it  seemed like an  ambitious statement, especially considering
 that the Japanese proceeded to lose to England, 2-0, in its next match.
 But  Cuellar  looked like a prophet  ahead of Sunday's final, with Japan doing
 more  than  just competing  for the title  and Sawa going  home with more than
 just a medal.
 Sawa  has long  been considered the best female player in Japan's history, but
 the  team  had won just three  games in five  World Cups prior to this summer,
 with Sawa failing to make a serious mark in any of them.
 However,  she  saved her  best for  last by  capturing the  Golden Boot as the
 tournament's leading scorer with five goals, while also being named the Player
 of the Tournament.
 "She  is the undisputed  leader of our team," Japan coach Norio Sasaki said of
 Sawa.  "She symbolizes exactly the style of football our team should play. For
 18 years, she has been part of the national team and she symbolizes the entire
 history of women's football in Japan."
 It's  been a long  road to the top for Sawa, who after nearly two decades with
 the national team had to feel like this day would never come.
 "This is my fifth World Cup and I did nothing in the previous four so I'm very
 happy  with  the result today,"  Sawa told  FIFA.com after Sunday's win. "I've
 been  a national team  member for 18 years so this has been a long, long wait.
 I've  been through  the difficult  times for  women's football  in Japan  so I
 really feel relieved. It doesn't feel like reality."
 The  United States  provided plenty of exciting finishes and memorable moments
 in  Germany this summer. But in the end, the tournament will be remembered for
 Japan's inspired play, with Sawa riding off into the sunset as a champion.
 07/18 13:36:08 ET