GUANGZHOU, China (AP)—Japan won its first Asian Games women’s football gold medal by beating the defending champion North Koreans 1-0 on Monday in a fiercely contested final.
After a scoreless first half, defender Azusa Iwashimizu broke through with her historic header in the 74th minute, helping her jubilant team claim the Asian Games title.
The disciplined and experienced Japanese, led by U.S.-based midfielders Homare Sawa and Aya Miyama, managed to keep the determined North Koreans from scoring the rest of the game.
The win was retribution for Japan’s 2006 loss to the top-seeded North Koreans in a penalty shootout at the last Asian Games in Doha.
“Four years ago we lost to North Korea in the final. Now we are here, we are four years older and we have a better mentality that helped us win,” Japan captain Aya Miyama said. “As I was listening to our national anthem from the podium, I was more calmed than excited.”
The North Koreans blamed fatigue after a difficult, 2-1 extra time win over South Korea in the semifinals.
“They have never gone through a match like this, and losing this match is a good experience for them,” coach Kim Kwang Min said in comments translated at a post-match news conference.
The coach said he was disappointed not to deliver another gold for North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Il.
“The leader … really is a women’s football fan. He takes good care of my players and looks at my players as if they were his daughters,” he said. “I’m sorry he couldn’t see their great efforts rewarded.”
Earlier Monday, South Korea claimed the bronze by beating China 2-0, reversing the result from four years ago when China won the third-place match.
The crowd at Tianhe Stadium in Guangzhou was raucous as Japan and North Korea played for the gold.
North Korea and Japan are historical rivals—Japan colonized Korea from 1910 to the end of World War II in 1945—and the match was heated on the field and off.
China remains North Korea’s main ally and has tussled with Japan over territorial disputes, and the fans were firmly behind the North Koreans. It translated into cheers for the Koreans and boos for the Japanese.