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TOKYO (Reuters Life!) - A substitute on the Japanese women's national soccer team who led her country to its first ever World Cup semi-final appearance counts among her supporters workers battling to bring under control the world's worst nuclear crisis in 25 years.
Not surprising, perhaps -- some are former colleagues from when Karina Maruyama herself worked at Tokyo Electric Power Co(Tepco), the operator of the nuclear plant crippled by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami.
The 28-year-old Maruyama has become a national heroine after coming off the bench to score an extra-time winner against the heavily favored defending champion Germany on Saturday.
Her dramatic 108th minute goal gave Japan a 1-0 win over Germany and brought an outpouring of praise and gratitude on her blog, but it was a former colleague now working to contain damage at the Fukushima Daiichi plant 240 km (150 miles) from Tokyo who really moved her.
"The mail said that the goal 'renewed our will to work and strive together'. I cried as I read it," she was quoted as telling the Chunichi Shimbun daily.
Maruyama, who currently plays for Japanese club JEF United Ladies, worked at the plant from 2005 to 2009 as a Tepco employee while playing for Mareese, a club sponsored by the utility.
In April, she was hit with a barrage of criticism after a blog entry that questioned the heavy blame piled on Tepco from the public and media for the crisis, which likely made the current praise much sweeter.
"Everybody in Japan, who cheered me on from various places and under various circumstances, gave power to the national team and helped me score the goal," she wrote on her blog.
"I am filled with gratitude."
Japan faces Sweden at the semi final game Wednesday. The United States and France also square off the same day for a place in the final to be played at Frankfurt Sunday.
Reporting by Shinichi Saoshiro