The only people who are entitled to feel bad about the United States’ enervating loss in the World Cup final on a penalty shootout after extra time are the handful of American players who thought the trophy was in their grasp so many times over the course of the game, only to have it wrenched away by — what? An unforgiving crossbar, for one thing. But for another, a Japanese team playing for more than itself, that trailed twice but wouldn’t leave the field without answering, and at last won thanks to their diving goalie Ayumi Kaihori
, whose flailing shin blocked Shannon Boxx’s first penalty-kick attempt and put the United States behind for the first time all game. “They never gave up,” Abby Wambach said simply.
Let’s get this straight: The World Cup has no magical powers than can make a tsunami and a nuclear meltdown un-happen. But it can console, and uplift and send a message home about fighting back, and you’d be one ugly American to begrudge them this victory.
You’d be ugly, too, to criticize the American team unduly for the loss after such a memorable run. The penalty-kick phase was inglorious — Boxx, Carli Lloyd and Tobin Heath each missed on successive attempts, no doubt affected by the pressure of the moment. But I’d defy any viewer or critic to hold up under the same circumstances, given the way Japan had seized the momentum with its overtime comeback. The Americans suffered from an invisible drag all game long, even though they dominated for long stretches, and twice led, including that 2-1 margin that came off Wambach’s header in the 104th minute. Though they ran themselves into the dirt mounting huge offensive surges, they were never properly rewarded on the scoreboard.
They had dozens of scoring chances — the United States could easily have led 4-0 in the first half. But balls bounced wide. They ticked off the post or the crossbar. Some went awry out of haste, or wrong decisions, or over-anxiousness. But in some cases they were just purely unlucky — Wambach missed one left-footed strike in the first half by a fraction of an inch. There was no understanding why shots simply wouldn’t go in the net. “You can’t,” Coach Pia Sundhage said.
You got the feeling it just wasn’t their day — and you got the feeling that they had that feeling, too.
Overall, they did far more right than wrong in the tournament, both on and off the field, and they deserved applause. With their stirring comeback against Brazil, they engaged a U.S. audience that had largely ignored them. They had every right to reproach us for not paying attention to them between Olympics and World Cups, but they were gracious enough not to. One of the traits of this program over the last dozen years has been how uncomplaining the players are; they are never surly no matter how poorly paid or ignored they are compared with men’s soccer. Instead they just put their heads down and run as hard as they can. Though relative have-nots in a sports world full of entitlements, whose job futures in Women’s Professional Soccer are by no means assured, they don’t carp about their disadvantages; rather, they just keep trying to build a future. For that alone they command the deep respect.
“We’re pro athletes, something not many women have the privilege to experience,” Wambach said earlier in the week. “In order for me, in my life, to continue doing something so amazing, this job, it’s almost a duty to give these [younger] girls a platform to inspire themselves. . . .It’s almost a pay-it-forward system at this point. Some people call it a burden, but I don’t call it a burden. It’s a responsibility and it’s something I and my teammates take very seriously.”
Instead of whining about lack of coverage, they seized the previously apathetic nation’s attention with their heart and theatrics, and held it. All of a sudden, their locker room was full of reporters newly arrived from the States. Solo’s followers on Twitter increased from 10,000 to more than 130,000. Tweets of encouragement came from Lil Wayne, Tom Hanks, Wanda Sykes, and countless fellow athletes such as Aaron Rodgers, not to mention various Obamas, Bidens and Clintons. A handsome U.S. Army captain stationed in Afghanistan decided to quit shaving his upper lip until the U.S. women won, and made a YouTube video in which he invited Solo to the Austrian Officer’s ball, promising to shave first. Even some hard-bitten male sportswriters were entranced. ESPN’s “Pardon the Interruption” tweeted about them, and Peter King, football writer for Sports Illustrated, called for a Wambach cover — probably jinxing her.
It must have been hard to keep their heads on straight, but they did, and for that they deserved credit too, and so did Sundhage, that amateur folkie singer whose relaxed slouch and odd quirks couldn’t obscure her expert, sure-handed management.
In the midst of it all, the American players seemed to understand just how hard it would be to bring the Cup home. After their electrifying come-from-behind victory over Brazil in a penalty shootout, it was tempting to celebrate prematurely. “You know, it’s great, but let’s review,” Wambach said. “ We won a game — we won nothing.” They didn’t underestimate the team they would be facing in Japan. Goalie Solo put it best. “They are the sentimental favorites of this tournament, and it’s pretty clear to us they’re playing for something bigger and better than the game. When you are playing with so much emotion and heart, that’s hard to play against.”