FRANKFURT, Germany - Japan became the first Asian nation to win the Women's World Cup on Sunday, beating the United States in a penalty shootout after both sides were level at 2-2 after extra time.
The Japanese denied the U.S. team the chance to become the first country to lift the cup three times.
The Americans missed their first three penalties, and Japan went on to win the shootout 3-1 when Saki Kumagai slotted the final shot high past goalkeeper Hope Solo.
In a thrilling final, 32-year-old Japan captain Homare Sawa flicked a corner through a jumble of players and past Solo with three minutes of extra time left to equalize and set up the shootout.
Japan had already scored late in regulation to force extra time.
"We ran and ran.We were exhausted but we kept running," said Sawa, the top scorer in the tournament with five goals.
"Not one of the players gave up," coach Norio Sasaki said. "The penalty kicks are always a 50-50 percent chance."
Japan goalkeeper Ayumi Kaihori did more than her part, saving the first penalty from Shannon Boxx with her foot and swatting the third kick from substitute Tobin Heath away with her gloves. In between, Carli Lloyd skied her shot over the bar.
U.S coach Pia Sundhage was perplexed and couldn't find an explanation for the penalty misses.
"Sometimes in, sometimes out," she said.
Sawa received the cup and immediately went into a huddle with her players, a multitude of hands cradling the trophy, a symbol of the nation's teamwork.
Japan was always driven by a greater purpose, hoping its success at the World Cup could provide some emotional relief for a nation still reeling from the March 11 earthquake and tsunami.
The team displayed a banner reading "To our Friends Around the World — Thank You for Your Support" before the final, and Sasaki inspired his players before the quarterfinal by showing them pictures of the devastation.
After Japan came back in the game late in regulation time, the Americans kept hustling and pressuring and it finally paid off when Alex Morgan sent a pinpoint cross to the towering Wambach in the 104th minute. The forward didn't even have to lift a foot to send her header past goalkeeper Ayumi Kaihori from six yards.
The goal gave Wambach four for the tournament, and it looked good enough for the title. She had scored in the last minute of extra time with a header against Brazil, setting up the shootout win in the quarterfinals, and a goal against France in the semifinals.
Still it left the Americans with bitter disappointment.
"It's obviously heartbreaking. Japan played well, they never gave up," Wambach said.
After dominating play from the start, the Americans went ahead in the 69th minute when Megan Rapinoe sent a 35-meter pass to Morgan, and the substitute hustled past Saki Kumagai to slot home with angled shot from 15 meters.
After seeing one shot hit the post and another the crossbar, the U.S. finally managed what it had been working for against a strangely lackluster Japanese team.
Against the run of play, Japan scored a goal out of nothing in the 81st minute when American defenders Rachel Buehler and Alex Krieger failed to clear a ball, allowing star Japan player Aya Miyama to sneak in and slot home from close range past Solo.
That set up for a wild finish with both sides seeking the winner in regulation time. Japan suddenly found its passing game, threatening whenever the Americans lost the ball.