Sitting in the grandstand at high school and college basketball games, I’ve heard guys discuss how they enjoy watching women play hoops. The guys have an air of macho condescension about them. They speak of the women’s sound fundamentals, the passing and defense, the selflessness that distinguishes the women’s game from the men’s. Yet for all the surface sexual evenhandedness, they’re really just proving themselves basketball aficionados, students of the game more astute than the other guys. It’s left unspoken that women can’t jump or shoot or–most important of all to a basketball spectator–dunk like men, that there’s a whole aerial aspect lacking in the women’s game. I appreciate women’s basketball myself for the same reasons, but I’m not about to say that women play as entertaining a game as men. The explosive athleticism of a dunk is what separates today’s game from the two-handed set shot era, when basketball was largely ignored in America.
Soccer, by nature, is a relatively two-dimensional game. It’s true that the ball leaves the ground, and a large part of what separates the top soccer players from the rest is their skill at manipulating the ball in the air, with shoulders and knees and heads. But it’s still for the most part a ground game, and for all their added speed and agility men do not play an inherently more interesting brand of soccer than women. That’s why I’ll venture–with the minimum possible machismo, I hope–that I’d rather watch the U.S. women’s soccer team play than any other team in the sport. Unfortunately, the team that just won the Women’s World Cup will probably never play as a unit again; this was a great team, full of skillful players and identifiable personalities, and as I watched them pursue the cup in their home country, I found myself not reassessing but simply remembering what it is about sport I find captivating. Like dance, it’s beautiful bodies in beautiful motion, but it adds the elements of competition, intense pressure, and drama, with unscripted characters emerging spontaneously. The Women’s World Cup final attracted more than 90,000 fans to the Rose Bowl, reportedly the largest crowd ever to see a women’s sporting event, and it set a record as the largest U.S. audience ever to watch a soccer game on TV. Rightfully so. This was a great game played by a great team.
It says something about the players that they imprinted themselves on the public in such a short span of time. To be sure, the team was hyped like nobody’s business, propelled by advertisers eager to tap into the women’s (and girls’) market–credit card companies, sports drink manufacturers, and sporting goods firms such as Reebok and Nike. Yet their individual characters could be grasped with stunning speed on the field, especially in the final against China, and hype had nothing to do with that. There was Michelle Akers and her mane of tawny hair–her nickname is “Mufasa,” after the animated character in The Lion King–throwing her body around and seemingly capturing every loose ball in the middle of the field with a fearless array of headers executed over the smaller Chinese players. (She finally left the game at the end of regulation after a violent collision with U.S. goaltender Briana Scurry.) There was forward Tiffeny Milbrett, whom I unfortunately referred to as “stocky” in a recent column after the U.S. team’s victory over Nigeria in Soldier Field. Milbrett is indeed shorter than most of her teammates, but like all the U.S. players she’s exceptionally conditioned, thin and wiry through her trunk and upper body, and has relentless energy. There was Mia Hamm, of course, with her dazzling knack for controlling the ball and changing direction in an instant, like a joystick-directed video-game character; she was impressive even as China hemmed her in with a swarming defense. (The U.S. did the same with Chinese scoring star Sun Wen.) There was Kristine Lilly and that feral glare of hers, never more in evidence than when she positioned herself just inside the near corner of the U.S. goal on a Chinese corner kick in sudden-death overtime–peering out like a badger defending its lair–and then made the play of the game, a header save after a Chinese player headed the ball past Scurry. Scurry herself was a fearsome, indomitable presence, especially when she made her one save on the five penalty kicks that decided the outcome and went screaming and pumping her fists to the sideline. Finally there were Brandi Chastain and the other U.S. defenders–Joy Fawcett and captain and field general Carla Overbeck–smothering balls time after time as Chinese attackers dribbled through the box in front of the U.S. goal. The Chinese team had come in on an even more impressive run than the U.S. team, unbeaten, untied, and having outscored their World Cup opponents 19-2–compared with the overall U.S. tally of 18-3. The U.S. team, it was said by the soccer experts, had to play a perfect game to win. And it did.
Just like the 1994 men’s World Cup final played at the Rose Bowl and won by Brazil over Italy on penalty kicks, this was a game of defense–and not the sort of visceral defense played by the 1985 Bears. To mix sports metaphors, it was the soccer equivalent of a pitchers’ duel, and many sportswriters complained that it was dull. I’ll agree only insofar as a soccer game–even a game such as this–translates very poorly to television. A friend took me to task recently for calling soccer “sedate and soporific,” but I was referring to the perspective of the spectator, not the player on the field, where the action is fast and unbroken. TV has yet to find a way to fragment the sport into discernible segments, the way it has baseball with a center-field camera and editing that can choose between fielders making plays and hitters running bases. Soccer on TV is mostly long sequences of long shots showing several players and about a third of the field. Whenever that view gives way to a close-up shot of one player deking another, the skill is evident but the teamwork gets lost. That said, I found the U.S.-China final to be one long crescendo of tension–especially the last 15 minutes of regulation and the 30 minutes of overtime, after which the penalty kicks were like ripples of pleasure. The ability of the U.S. team to transcend the limitations of television was extraordinary. Time and again Akers rose out of the pack, Milbrett burst momentarily into the clear, Hamm cut back against the grain, Chastain undercut a Chinese attacker, pinned the ball to the ground, and rose to dribble off in the other direction. In long shots, meanwhile, the U.S. team was clearly controlling the action. It dominated the first half. The Chinese team rallied early in the second half and marshaled a few flurries in overtime–foremost among them that corner kick and deflection blocked by Lilly–but the U.S. team dictated the tempo toward the end of regulation and for most of overtime, when its better conditioning showed.
The vaunted Chinese offense, led by Sun Wen, was shut down by the U.S. defense, which stopped the opposing rushes and picked off errant passes. The U.S. team, meanwhile, played its usual ball-control offense. Typically one player would dribble forward until confronted by an opponent, at which point she would pass laterally with no unnecessary razzle-dazzle to a teammate who would move forward until confronted and pass laterally again. The U.S. offense advanced like waves breaking on a shore. No one player dominated, not even Hamm. It was the overall team that controlled the play, so it was something of an irony that the U.S. won on a perfect sequence of five individual penalty kicks.
It was the team that was impressive, with its fluidity and cohesion. Many of the players remembered winning the World Cup in 1991, and most remembered losing in the semifinals in 1995 and rededicating themselves to returning to the top. By the time of the 1999 final they fit together like an ultimate soccer machine. So I don’t hold out much hope for a women’s professional soccer league. Spread those players over eight or a dozen franchises and fill out the teams with lesser players and the action would never overcome the sport’s inherent shortcomings. Yet why is such a league necessary? Isn’t this team and what it achieved enough? Won’t it be enough to watch them compete again in next year’s summer Olympics in Sydney, Australia? Who knows? This team was a product of Title IX, the 1970s court ruling mandating equal opportunity in sports for girls; perhaps its success will create such a groundswell that the next 10 or 20 years will bring talent deep enough to accommodate such a league. Until then, enjoy what is.
After scoring the game winner on a forceful left-footed penalty kick that hooked into the side netting of the goal–an unstoppable boot–Chastain ripped off her jersey in the manner of male soccer stars, revealing under her now-famous black Nike sports bra a bodacious set of abs. It sometimes got lost in the hype and the sexism inherent in our culture (my favorite headline the following day was in a Seattle paper that trumpeted, “U.S. team pulls it off”), but what that photo confirmed as it ran again and again in publication after publication was that these were exceptional athletes tested by time and adversity and prepared to seize the moment when it arrived. They quite simply made soccer the sport of American women.