AFTER THE U.S. women's soccer team had come from behind to win its quarterfinal match at Jack Kent Cooke Stadium Thursday night, after the team had taken its flag-waving lap around the field and headed finally into the locker room, after 54,642 delirious fans had quieted down -- only then, in a way, could you see how women's soccer really has arrived. For that was when the Nigerian and Brazilian teams took the field for the second quarterfinal of the night's doubleheader -- and almost no one in the crowd departed. Many of the fans had painted their faces red, white and blue. Many wore Mia Hamm T-shirts and Mia Hamm ponytails. Many, we would note, were up way past their bedtimes. Yet they and their parents stayed and watched and cheered for the best women's teams of Africa and South America.

The women's World Cup march through America during the past two weeks has been nothing short of phenomenal, with record crowds for women's events and enthusiastic turnouts even for practices. Much of this can be attributed to the U.S. team, which is talented, personable and refreshingly appreciative of its fans. But much of it also stems from the rapid advance during the past two decades of women's and girls' sports in the United States.

It's often pointed out that this advance owes much to a government mandate -- to the passage 27 years ago of Title IX, the federal provision that barred sex discrimination in education. Colleges put new focus on women's sports, and that has trickled down to third-graders playing soccer and basketball across the country. It's also true that this is one government mandate that worked because it made sense -- because girls and women were more than ready to be included in the athletic life of the country.

Of course, it wasn't just young girls cheering at Cooke Stadium Thursday night; there were plenty of boys and men, too. This wasn't a women's event so much as a hard-fought, dazzling athletic contest that happened to be played by women.

The crowds at these women's World Cup events bring not only equality but something new to the athletic sphere. Ed Burke, a Prince George's County police officer, got close to this idea when he noted, "It's as polite as can be . . . not at all like Redskins games." We were struck by it after one of Mia Hamm's virtuoso dribbling displays ended with the ball going out of bounds instead of into the net. As the crowd hushed, a young girl behind us called out, "Nice try, Mia!" That's a sentiment that wasn't often expressed after a Gus Frerotte interception.