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Japan beat U.S. to win women's World Cup

FRANKFURT (Reuters) - Japan won the women's World Cup on Sunday for the first time, stunning the heavily favored United States 3-1 on penalties after a 2-2 draw in extra time.

Japan was in need of a good news story after the tsunami disaster which rocked the country in March and their women's soccer team delivered it in dramatic fashion despite being dominated for long spells in the final. "To our friends around the world - thank you for your support," was the simple message on a giant banner the Japanese women carried around the pitch after the match. It was hard to imagine a more thrilling finale to the three-week tournament played in packed stadiums before enthusiastic crowds around the country and in front of record television audiences of up to 16 million in Germany alone.

On Sunday, Japan fell behind in normal time and again in extra time but hit back out of the blue on both occasions before prevailing in the shootout as the top-ranked U.S. team lost all their confidence, sending a series of poor efforts at goal.

Shannon Boxx and Tobin Heath had their spot kicks stopped while Carli Lloyd's shot sailed high above the crossbar before Abby Wambach finally converted to keep alive U.S. hopes.

Saki Kumagai then blasted a well-placed shot high to the left over diving U.S. keeper Hope Solo to give Japan an insurmountable 3-1 lead in penalties, sparking wild celebrations with her team mates in front of the sell-out crowd of 48,837.

"BITTER DEFEAT"

"Unfortunately we gave them a gift with that goal," she said. "I didn't see what happened. But I still think we played well. We're happy that we won the silver medal. It's disappointing but I think we played well." The United States had started strongly, dominating the first half. They broke the deadlock in the 69th minute when Alex Morgan scored a stylish goal. The American, who came off the bench at halftime, outsprinted defender Yaki Kumagai on to a long ball from Megan Rapinoe and expertly fired her shot into the corner. Aya Miyama equalised in the 81st minute when she tapped in a loose ball in front of the U.S. goal after woeful defending.

(Writing by Erik Kirschbaum; Editing by Clare Fallon)

(This story was refiled to fix the name of Japan captain Sawa to 'Homare')