Brazil played better, and it didn't matter. The U.S. women's soccer team occasionally looked slow, even disorganized, and it didn't matter. Not Thursday night. Not with talk of the end of an era and a collective responsibility to those who defined it.
"I think there must have been some kind of an aura," U.S. captain Julie Foudy said. "We didn't play our best, but we gutted it out, and what better way for this team? That's what we do."
With exactly that kind of performance, the U.S. women won the Olympic gold medal with a 2-1 overtime victory against Brazil at Karaiskaki Stadium, a win provided by 24-year-old forward Abby Wambach, who sent the deciding goal into the net off her head in the 112th minute.
When the final whistle blew at last, the massive hug that ensued was part victory celebration, part retirement party. Five of the players who provided the foundation of U.S. women's soccer, five women who became role models for countless girls across the country, played their last match together. Foudy, Joy Fawcett, Mia Hamm, Kristine Lilly and Brandi Chastain all stood in a row, arms around each other, during the medal ceremony, exactly as they had planned.
The younger players spoke reverently over the past few weeks about their responsibility to these women, because they served as role models. With the final gun, Foudy, Fawcett and Hamm retired from international competition, and the tears in the minutes afterward were recognition of just that.
"It's a fabulous way to win an Olympic gold medal," Wambach said, "and it's an even better way to send off these women, because they're what this is about. This is not about me, or the younger players. It's about them."
There is no overstating the impact this group of women had on women's athletics in the United States and beyond. Brazilian Coach Rene Simoes acknowledged as much afterward, recalling a trip he once took to Dallas to watch American women play. Someone asked him why he was there.
"I come to learn," Simoes said.
In 1991, when the first Women's World Cup was held -- an event which Chastain, Fawcett, Foudy, Hamm and Lilly helped the United States win -- women's team sports were little more than an afterthought at home and abroad. Most U.S. newspapers barely acknowledged the tournament. When the team arrived back at New York's JFK airport, five journalists greeted them -- three of them foreign.
Yet in two staggering summers to follow, they changed how their sport was seen. When they won the gold medal at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, they combined with gold medal performances from the U.S. softball and basketball teams to bring unprecedented attention to women's sports. Then, in the 1999 World Cup, they did something no women's team had done before, or has done since. They captured the nation's imagination, filling football stadiums from coast to coast, leaping onto the cover not only of Sports Illustrated, but of Time and Newsweek. Articulate, polite, attractive and savvy, some became stars.
"They are the essence of what sports is supposed to be about," Billie Jean King, the tennis legend who almost single-handedly founded the women's sports movement, said by telephone Thursday. "They're fantastic. . . . If you were given a blank piece of paper and told to come up with what a 'she-ro' would be like, this is what it would be. They have the 'it' factor. This country is indebted to them."
Not everything has been perfectly smooth, though. The success of the 1999 World Cup begat a women's professional soccer league, the Women's United Soccer Association, that has since folded, though the women hope to resurrect it in the next two years. As other nations began to sink more money into their women's programs, they closed the gap with the Americans. In the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, the U.S. women lost the gold medal game to Norway. In the World Cup last fall, they lost in the semifinals to Germany and settled for third.
Those are primary reasons why this tournament was so important to these women. "I don't like to lose," Foudy said. "And I really didn't want to lose in our last game."
Because goalkeeper Briana Scurry was stalwart in the first half, making two tremendous saves, and because Brazil clanked a pair of sterling scoring opportunities off the goal posts later on, the U.S. won. Lindsay Tarpley, 20, scored the first goal, in the 39th minute. But Brazil's Pretinha, a former player with Washington's WUSA franchise, tied the score with 17 minutes remaining in regulation.
That led to overtime, and a perfect blend of past and future. Lilly, 33, took a corner kick from the left side, and launched the ball across the penalty area, where Wambach lunged to put her head to it. It ricocheted off a Brazilian defender at the goal line, and bounced into the net. Wambach, a former Washington Freedom star who is considered one of the cornerstones of the next generation of women's players, immediately sprinted toward midfield, where a band of American fans furiously waved flags and celebrated with her.
Afterward, in the locker room, several of the veterans spoke. Foudy thanked Wambach "for not making the next 40 years of my life miserable." Hamm, the most popular female team sport athlete ever, spoke of leaving the program in the right hands, for the next generation was essential in taking this title. And the five veterans -- the "91ers," as they have become known -- found they were too happy for more tears.
"We're best of friends," Hamm said. "We have so much love and respect for each other. It's incredible."
On the medal stand, they all but screamed the national anthem. Those five women grew up without a national team to look up to. As they walked from the stadium, they understood who they had become, what they represented.
"The thing I love most about this team, which I think will be the legacy," Foudy said, "is it was always more than just soccer. It was about giving back to fans and communities. . . . It's empowering to these young kids, when we had male role models our whole lives, to finally see women doing this."