|The Winner Squad|
“I cannot believe this,” said 32-year-old Sawa, who was playing at her fifth World Cup.
“We never gave up and played until the last minute, I just kept running until the last moment. We have given all we had. I have always aimed to become world number one and it is hard to believe this is real, but I feel happy.
“This is the first solid result in my five World Cups and I will go home with the gold medal.”
The Japanese had defender Azusa Iwashimizu sent off in the 121st minute for a foul on US striker Alex Morgan.
“Our team was very focused and very organised, but it was our first final, so we didn’t really get into the game,” admitted Japan coach Norio Sasaki.
In the dramatic shoot-out, Japan goalkeeper Ayumi Kaihori saved two penalties before defender Saki Kumagai hit the winning spot-kick.
“We have some very good players on the team and that is why we won the final. It is all down to the players in front of me, it was a team effort,” said Kaihori.
“I got support during the shoot-outs because the Americans missed a couple. In a shoot-out, I just have to believe in myself and I was very self confident in that situation. I just wanted to save all those shots coming at me.”
The US had taken the lead in the second-half of normal time thanks to striker Alex Morgan’s sublime strike, but Japan’s Aya Miyama poached the equaliser after a mix-up in the American defence in the 81st minute.
This was Japan’s first win over the Americans at the 26th time of trying and was heartbreak for the Stars and Stripes as they missed out on a third World Cup title despite dominating Japan for large periods of the game.
“We made just a couple of mistakes. We let them back in the game but I still think we did well,” said US coach Pia Sundhage.
Japan made it to the final after their shock 1-0 defeat of Germany in the quarter-finals before they dominated Sweden 3-1 in the last four.
The US followed up a dramatic 5-3 win on penalties over Brazil in the last eight before they beat France 3-1 in the semi-finals.
The US controlled the opening 20 minutes as left-wing Megan Rapinhoe and forward Lauren Cheney, who replaced striker Amy Rodriguez in the starting team, caused havoc, while Wambach hit the crossbar on 28 minutes.
Japan’s first real chance came with 30 minutes gone but midfielder Kozue Ando fired her shot straight at US goalkeeper Hope Solo.
The first-half finished goalless, but Cheney, with a heavily strapped ankle, was replaced at half-time by goal-scorer Morgan.
The USA kept up the pressure and Kaihori palmed Wambach’s header over the bar on 64 minutes.
The Americans’ pressure finally told when Rapinhoe’s long-range pass - which was half the length of the pitch - found Morgan who blasted her shot across Kaihori on 69 minutes.
Japan were gifted the equaliser on 81 minutes when defenders Rachel Buehler and Krieger scrambled to clear the ball in their own goalmouth, but left-wing Miyama reacted fastest and stabbed the ball home.
In extra-time, Wambach headed the US back into the lead in the 104th minute. But Sawa equalised from a corner in the 117th minute with her fifth goal of the tournament to take the game to penalties.