For the three-week duration of the third Women's World Cup, the U.S. players used every opportunity to emphasize that they were, above all else, a solidly united team and that it would take the contributions of many to establish their legacy on the tournament's final day at the Rose Bowl. Today their predictions, and their beautiful dreams, came true. Before a crowd of 90,185, the largest to witness a women's athletic event, one U.S. player after another stepped forward to make a decisive play that sustained them through a tense scoreless overtime tie, then lifted them to victory by the narrowest of margins over China.
A pro-U.S. throng, including President Clinton, erupted with a burst of cheers that resounded like cannon fire when Brandi Chastain ended the nerve-wracking drama with a kick for the ages. Chastain beat China's goalkeeper, Gao Hong, to give the Americans a 5-4 edge in penalty kicks after the two teams had dueled relentlessly under a broiling sun for 90 minutes of regulation time and two 15-minute periods of sudden-death overtime. Thousands painted or otherwise decorated in red, white and blue jumped in jubilation. U.S. fans embraced and some even wept in happiness as the Chinese graciously and almost immediately applauded both the U.S. team and the crowd.
"It's a storybook ending for a team that has its place in history," said U.S. Coach Tony DiCicco in the midst of bedlam. "This is a team with courage. They just fought and fought and fought. They refused to let themselves be beaten.
"When I read this headline, `We Win,' we mean all of you. All of America is part of this victory."
At the finish, field personnel fired off a stream of sparkling confetti that blanketed the sky. U.S. goalkeeper Briana Scurry raced into the crowd to find a longtime friend; other players rushed to the middle of the field to hug one another, dance and shout. Chastain flung off her white uniform jersey momentarily after the last shot. "I kind of lost my mind," she said. "I said, my God, this is my greatest moment on a soccer field."
But quickly she regained almost all of the calm that had come over her when she needed it. "I was waiting to step up for the team," she said, describing the moments leading up to her turn to kick the ball from the penalty spot 12 yards in front of the goal. "When I got up there I didn't look at Gao. Sometimes she likes to smile and get into it. When the whistle blew, I just approached the ball and kicked."
Chastain was one of a host of heroines. Scurry made her most crucial save against China's third penalty kicker, Liu Ying, by diving to her left in an inspired moment. Kristine Lilly saved what looked to be China's winning shot with a header while standing at the goal line in overtime, with Scurry on the ground. Mia Hamm led an attack that, while failing to score against an outstanding defense, kept pressure on the Chinese for most of the game. A passel of U.S. defenders staved off China's resilient attack in overtime when the American cause appeared to be waning.
Michelle Akers, 33, the team's midfield inspiration, dominated play until she had to be helped off the field after 90 minutes, having succumbed to dehydration. Smiling but limping, Akers -- who has remained a world-class athlete despite suffering from chronic fatigue syndrome -- joined the celebration.
"She's always been an offensive player but she played unbelievable defense the entire tournament," Scurry said of Akers. "Every time a ball went up in the air today she would find it with her head. She was tired out there, but she did not want to come out of the game."
The U.S. team and, indeed, this tournament captured the country's attention and held it through three weeks of play. The crowd brought the cumulative attendance for the U.S. team's six victorious games to 412,486, an average of 68,747. Attendance for the tournament has far outstripped that of the first two, in China -- won by the United States -- and in Norway, where the hosts were victorious.
The U.S. team beat the Chinese, 2-1, for the Olympic gold medal in Atlanta three years ago, but had lost to the Chinese in two of three meetings this year. Today's result was every bit as close as Scurry had anticipated on the eve of the game, suggesting the possibility of overtime -- and more. "It could very well happen," she said. "If it goes to [penalty kicks], I'll be ready."
As they were constantly reminded, the pressure on the U.S. players was far more than just a desire to win the World Cup. This event was seen by some as a bellwether of women's sports in America. Could women's teams fill stadiums, draw advertisers and attract television viewers in a non-Olympic event?
The answer seems to be yes. Nike put together some of the year's most amusing commercials, in which five of the U.S. players -- Scurry, Chastain, Tisha Venturini, Hamm and Tiffeny Milbrett -- are inseparable, on dates and doctors' appointments. In one, when a dentist tells Chastain she needs two fillings, the other four stand up, one by one, and chime: "Then I will have two fillings!"
Tickets were selling outside the stadium for as much as $1,000 before the game, and 35 people were arrested for scalping -- which could be another record for a women's sporting event.
Among those who didn't need to scramble for a ticket were President Clinton and a host of other celebrities, including actress Melanie Griffith and her husband, Antonio Banderas; Peter Berg, Elisabeth Shue, k.d. lang, Jennifer Lopez and the singing group Hanson.
Clinton was joined by California Gov. Gray Davis, political adviser James Carville, brother Roger Clinton and his family, Hollywood producers and Arkansas friends Harry Thomason and Linda Bloodworth-Thomason and Christiaan Correy, Hamm's husband.
Afterward, Clinton visited both teams in their locker rooms. He told the Americans: "It was the most exciting sports event I have ever seen."
CAPTION: A shirtless Brandi Chastain is converged upon by teammates Shannon MacMillan, left, Sara Whalen and Kate Sobrero after Chastain's successful penalty kick -- the last of five taken by each team -- secured the Americans' triumph over China after 120 minutes of play resulted in a scoreless tie.
CAPTION: (Photo ran in an earlier edition) This young fan is one of 90,185 at the Rose Bowl for the Women's World Cup title game. It was the largest gathering ever for a women's sporting event.
CAPTION: The Rose Bowl holds 90,185 for the World Cup title game, the largest gathering ever for a women's sporting event.