(CNN) -- Japan won the Women's World Cup for the first time on Sunday, denying the United States a record third title after twice coming from behind in the final and then winning a penalty shootout in Germany.
Japan had come into the tournament as sentimental favorites, helping rally a nation that had been devastated by a March 11 earthquake and subsequent tsunami and nuclear disaster. For the United States, it was more a disappointment -- especially considering that the team twice relinquished leads.
The U.S. conceded equalizers at the end of the regulation and extra-time periods, then Japan had a player sent off before the Americans missed their first three spot-kicks.
Japan missed their third, but Saki Kumagai blasted the winner high into the net for an unassailable 3-1 lead to make her team the first from Asia to win the four-yearly soccer event.
"We lost to a great team, we really did," U.S. goalkeeper Hope Solo told ESPN, which broadcast the game. "I truly believe that something bigger was pulling for this team."
Japanese residents were glued to their televisions, despite the game starting around 4 a.m. local time. In one Tokyo eatery, for instances, scores adorned in the team's colors burst out in joy once their team beat the U.S. squad for the first time in 26 tries.
The Japanese had won only three matches in five previous tournaments, and have never won the Asian title.
But, despite their preparations being affected by the earthquake and tsunami that devastated their homeland in March, Japan qualified second in Group B with two wins from three matches.
They then denied the hosts a third success by winning the quarterfinal 1-0 in extra-time before beating Sweden 3-1 in the semis.
The U.S. had last reached the final at home in 1999, winning the tournament for the second time after triumphing in the inaugural event in China eight years before then.
And Pia Sundhage's team had looked set to end that long wait wait for another trophy, dominating the first half in Frankfurt as top scorer Abby Wambach hit the underside of the crossbar with a scorching left-foot shot and Lauren Cheney headed over when unmarked.
Cheney was replaced at halftime by Alex Morgan, who broke the deadlock in the 69th minute when she latched on to a long pass from Megan Rapinoe and fired in a left-foot shot that gave Japan goalkeeper Ayumi Kaihori no chance.
But Japan equalized with nine minutes of regulation time left through Aya Miyama following some disastrous defending by the Americans.
The midfielder scored her second goal of the tournament after U.S. captain Christie Rampone uncharacteristically gave the ball away and teammates Alex Krieger and Rachel Buehler were unable to clear the resulting cross.
Wambach put the U.S. in front again in the 104th minute, collecting her fourth goal in six matches at the tournament to put her second on the alltime World Cup scoring list with 13.
The striker, whose extra-time equalizer against Brazil took their quarterfinal to a penalty shootout, nodded home from close range after Morgan found space down the left and provided a perfect cross.
But Japan refused to give up, and Homare Sawa leveled again with a near-post flick-on from Miyama's left-wing corner that deflected into the net off Wambach.
That strike was the midfielder's fifth of the tournament, earning her the golden boot award.
The drama continued as Japan defender Azusa Iwashimizu was harshly sent off for fouling Morgan on the edge of the area in the final minute, but her teammates scrambled the resulting free-kick clear.
The U.S. made the worst possible start to the shootout when Kaihori blocked Shannon Boxx's attempt with her trailing leg, then Miyama put Japan 1-0 ahead.
Carli Lloyd skied her shot over the bar, but Hope Solo gave the Americans a chance when she saved Yuki Nagasoko's weak effort.
However, Kaihori then denied Tobin Heath before Solo got her hand to Mizuho Sakaguchi's low shot but could not keep it out -- 2-0 to Japan.
Wambach coolly slotted in her attempt, as she did in the shootout win over Brazil, but Kumagai clinched a famous victory.
"We made just a couple of mistakes. We let them back in the game but I still think we did well," Sundhage said in quotes reported by AFP.
"We had a lot of possession and played some good soccer. It's hard to lose on penalties, some go in and some go out. It's a small difference between winning and losing. We just didn't take our chances."
Japan's hero Kaihori said the whole team deserved the credit for their success.
"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," she said.
"I got support during the shootouts because the Americans missed a couple. In a shootout, 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 U.S. team, meanwhile, captured the hearts of Americans for its creativity, dazzling plays and free spirit. Their white-knuckle wins kept fans engrossed and revamped interest years after the team's last win in 1999, before a packed house at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke by phone with the U.S. team Sunday before the game, wishing the players good luck and telling them that America is proud of how well they've done.
"I just got the highest hopes that this great team, which has shown such resilience, will be coming back and winning for the U.S.," Clinton told reporters, adding that she plans to watch the game from Greece.
While the U.S. team played for bragging rights and to boost the sport's profile in their home country, Japanese players were hoping to give their citizens something to smile about after this spring's massive earthquake and tsunami.
"To be in the final is, to be honest, like a dream," Japanese player Homare Sawa told FIFA before the game. "We know USA are a great and strong team, but they have weak points, too, and there's always a chance to score."
The Japanese players had won over their share of fans, with Solo of the U.S. team calling them "the sentimental favorites" for helping to lift the spirits of their devastated nation.
"They're playing for something bigger and better than the game," the American goalkeeper said in a conference call prior to the match. "When you are playing with so much heart, that's hard to play against."