A Moment of Peace Before a Rush for the Prize
By William Gildea
The last adoring throng to greet the Americans jammed an area of the Los Angeles International Airport Monday, bestowing bouquets and small American flags after the team arrived from San Francisco. Tuesday brought the respite of an easy workout before a small audience of Pomona area residents pleased to discover the suddenly well-known soccer missionaries virtually in their backyards. Still, there were enough children to stir dust at a side of the field as they scurried for autographs from their new role models.
Then the Chinese held practice. Like the American reserves who played an enthusiastic pickup game while the starters jogged into the distance, the Chinese ran the field with joy and pride under the blazing sun. Occasionally, they would swig water and cast aside the bottles, reviving as fighters between rounds. And this was an easy day.
Offhand, it was impossible to choose the better of the two teams that will bring the third Women's World Cup to an impressive conclusion Saturday at a packed Rose Bowl. The Americans, in blue shirts and red shorts, controlled the ball effortlessly during their drills and cheered on one another. The Chinese, who wore red, some with long sleeves despite the heat, looked especially quick. As the latest sports vernacular would have it, they've both got game.
"We always play China hard," said U.S. goalkeeper Briana Scurry, sitting and relaxing in the shade of a tree. "We're going to get our chances against them. They're going to get their chances against us. It's just a matter of who's executing better at that time."
A single break could decide the outcome. Maybe the home field would be the difference. "It's a huge advantage," said forward Cindy Parlow, who had each of her fingernails painted in thin red, white and blue stripes. "When it comes down to the 85th minute and we hear the fans out there, that picks us up and keeps us going."
Defender Brandi Chastain already sensed a whole stadium supporting them, and much of the country as well. Even President Clinton is scheduled to be at the Rose Bowl. "I do believe the American public is willing us to win," Chastain said. "They want us to win. They want to feel good about this event. They'll be sad if we don't win, and we'll be sad. I hope nobody goes away sad from this next game." Unless, of course, it's China.
The Americans and their coach, Tony DiCicco, and the one Chinese player made available to the press, top scorer Sun Wen, promised all-out earnestness and abandon on Saturday. "You don't hold anything back now," Parlow said. "There's no trying to save your legs, no trying to protect against injury. You dig down and give it everything. We're going to have to play our best to win."
Intensity and high drama would seem assured given the global rivalry that has grown since 1996, when the American beat the Chinese, 2-1, to win the Olympics. This year, the teams have played three times, with the Chinese winning twice. All three scores were 2-1. The Americans would take 2-1 in their favor Saturday in a heartbeat.
But the Chinese star Sun, 26, is playing her best soccer. She scored one goal in the 1991 World Cup, three in the 1995 Cup and seven already in this one. Through an interpreter, she emphasized how badly she and her teammates crave victory. "We want to show the real capability of the team to the world," she said.
They want to prove themselves to their own country, especially. At home, Sun said, the team feels "alone" because men's soccer as in most countries receives much more attention. In China, women in general are not encouraged to compete in sports. "Most families treat women as shy," she said. "They should study, not be active all the time."
But her father in Shanghai is "a real soccer fan," and when she was a small girl "he would carry me to play soccer." By age 10 she was on a team and by 13 she was receiving the best possible coaching at a sports school. Sun is as personable as the U.S. women, and quick with her answers after hearing the questions translated. She writes poetry and likes karaoke, especially "Candle in the Wind" by Elton John. She knows some English; when someone thanked her for her time, she replied immediately, "You're welcome."
This approaching game could be decided by a single special player. Sun? Mia Hamm? DiCicco, taking shade from the unrelenting sun, spoke most enthusiastically about Michelle Akers, at 33 the mother of the team, its heart and soul. Akers attended Central Florida in Orlando, and lives in Florida. She has been on the national team since 1985. The coach said that "when Pele and everyone saw her play, they knew there was a place in this game for women. She legitimized the game for women, period."
The sounds of crowds and the rush of people had subsided for a time here on the doorstep of the desert. It was quiet, and DiCicco talked.
"Michelle takes a physical risk on almost every ball," he said. "It's not an option for her to give up on a ball. She'll head a ball that somebody's kicking. It's led to a lot of injuries in her career, but certainly she's an inspiration to the rest of the players.
"This is going to be her arena. The countless hours she's put in, the operations she's had, the countless hours of rehab. . . . She is going to be an absolute warrior in this game. I think she's going to play her best soccer of 1999. I just see it in her eyes."
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company