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 Philippines.
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 career.
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