U.S. Heads Above the Rest
By William Gildea
LOS ANGELES Just a few hours have passed since the United States won the third Women's World Cup, and already I am waiting for the next one. I would love being wherever it will be held four years from now, but the Americans' victorious six-game tour across the country during the last three weeks was one thrilling kick after another. I didn't think the crowds could get any more enthusiastic, but on Saturday 90,185 fans turned the Rose Bowl into a brilliant sea of red, white and blue. Tension could not have been greater than when the scoreless game reached sudden-death overtime and then penalty kicks.
What I'll remember most is the 100th minute of the grand finale when China's Fan Yunjie booted what looked like the Cup-winning shot with U.S. goalkeeper Briana Scurry momentarily out of position after tracking a corner kick. But there was Kristine Lilly, standing at the goal line in the precise spot she had to be to stop the shot with her head. In baseball parlance, it was a bang-bang play, off Fan's foot and then Lilly's head. It made possible Scurry's scintillating stop on one of China's five penalty kicks from the 12-yard spot, the difference in the game when all five American shooters beat Gao Hong.
It would have been more satisfying had there been a goal in the game. It would be more satisfying if there were some other way to resolve a soccer tie than by penalty kicks after two 15-minute sudden-death overtime periods. Replaying the game wouldn't be practical; you'd have to wait at least five days for the players to recover. And extending the sudden death much longer is asking a lot of the athletes, especially on a day such as Saturday when the temperature reached 95 degrees. How was it that Brandi Chastain wasn't even out of breath, didn't even look overheated, after her last shot into the net ended the tournament? Amazing athletes, these women, who ran the field for two hours.
"It's difficult to play at that pace in that heat," U.S. Coach Tony DiCicco said. "We wanted to attack and we did. To China's credit, they're a very good defensive team. It's hard to keep the ball against a defense like that.
"Trust me. I'm delighted with the outcome although I wish there were some goals so the crowd could see some of the great offensive players at their best. But penalty kicks is how it's going to be until some genius figures out a better way."
The final played out almost identically to the 1994 men's World Cup final at the Rose Bowl, also a scoreless deadlock decided in Brazil's favor over Italy by penalty kicks. Like that one, the women's final had few great scoring opportunities, although 10 corner kicks, six by the United States, offered enough chances. Maybe the closest came in the 90th minute when Mia Hamm served one across the goal mouth to the far side toward Chastain, but Chastain slipped. At length, when 33-year-old Michelle Akers, sensational on offense and defense in the midfield, had to be replaced after regulation because of exhaustion, the Chinese sensed favorable circumstances.
Sun Wen, their star, led repeated rushes. This is when the tension mounted. This is when the Americans looked as if they would be runners-up. But the flag-waving crowd was behind them, roaring and chanting "U-S-A." Young boys with their hair painted red, white and blue, boys wearing Mia Hamm jerseys were part of the throng. Families cheering together. A group each with a letter painted on his or her back to spell (as long as they were standing in the right order) "We Love U.S.A."
The tiring U.S. team responded. "Every chance we got," said Carla Overbeck, the captain, "we got together and said, 'We don't want our dream to end here.' "
It was the stuff of Rockne and his "Gipper" speech, seven decades later. The U.S. team wanted to win the World Cup as it had in 1991 but lost in 1995. The players wanted to win for themselves and for the fans whose encouragement throughout the tournament touched them. They wanted to win for anyone who rooted for them. "We wanted to regain the Cup for the pride of our team," Chastain said, "for the pride of our country, for the pride of U.S. soccer."
Sun offered her congratulations to the U.S. players. "Both teams had a great performance," she said. "The American team was more fortunate. The reason they could win is that the development of women's soccer in the U.S. is so great." More precisely, the women's game is more advanced in the United States than in China, but the Chinese teams of the 1990s have closed the margin. According to one report, 100 million in China watched the final on television.
But the American women have given an immeasurable boost to women's soccer, soccer itself and women's sports in general in the U.S. With that, we roll the credits for:
Hamm, who started the U.S. team on its course by controlling the opener against Denmark at Giants Stadium;
Scurry, who displayed quicker reflexes in goal than Gao, who was left motionless on two of the five U.S. penalty kicks;
Chastain, who discovered her teammates' love when she expected their wrath after accidentally kicking the ball into her own net in the fifth minute of the quarterfinal against Germany at Jack Kent Cooke Stadium. (She scored in the second half, and by the time she fired the last shot Saturday was simply irrepressible);
Lilly, who used her head;
Akers, the fearless veteran, the Dick Butkus of women's soccer;
Tisha Venturini, for two goals against Korea and the back flip;
Shannon MacMillan, for her game-winning goal against Korea and her game-winning assist against Germany;
All the other U.S. players, who contributed to the three-week performance that President Clinton called "a gift . . . to the United States";
DiCicco, for making the right moves;
Marla Messing, head of the organizing committee a player;
The best of the 16 Cup finalists after the U.S. and China Brazil, Norway, Germany, Sweden, Nigeria, Russia and Italy;
Everyman and Everywoman as represented by the unknown driver of a well-worn pickup truck parked outside the Rose Bowl with a large American flag attached, raised smartly and flying high.
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company