Now I know why so many young girls want to be like Mia. Mia Hamm can play soccer like no other woman in the world, just as advertised. She can shoot and score, she can distribute the ball and assist on goals, she can control play on a whole soccer field. I saw her help the Americans win the Olympic gold medal in a tense 2-1 victory over China in Athens, Ga., three summers ago. But I was too busy that memorable night hanging on to my seat in a Sanford Stadium rocking with a then-record crowd for women's soccer of 76,489 to notice many fine points. Saturday afternoon I settled back, much like the new record crowd of 78,972, and took the time to appreciate Hamm's artistry in what was all but a preordained victory over Denmark to open the 1999 Women's World Cup.
If this huge crowd was a fairly quiet one, part of the reason was the U.S. team's total domination. And the principal reason it dominated was the 27-year-old Hamm, the game's most valuable player. The final score was 3-0, but it could have been much more. Even when it was 1-0 at halftime on a goal she scored with an electrifying left footer, Denmark had failed to manage a single shot on goal. Like many men's World Cup openers, this start to the third Women's World Cup offered more pomp than suspense on the field (although we're not forgetting the Cameroon men's upset of Argentina in Milan in 1990). The American women beat Denmark, 5-0, last year, so Saturday was more about sendoff than sizzle.
Even if this game turned out to be a mere walk in the Meadowlands, the American women will have plenty of time to be challenged before this tournament ends July 10. After first-round games against Nigeria and North Korea, the Americans undoubtedly will move on to the knockout rounds. But to take the title on the last day at the Rose Bowl, they will have to win a semifinal in Palo Alto, Calif., on July 4 and a quarterfinal at Jack Kent Cooke Stadium on July 1. Defending champion Norway, China, Germany and Brazil are more capable teams than Denmark among the 16 nations entered. (Just like their male counterparts, Brazil is a team of one-name standouts, among these Pretinha, Sissi, Fanta, Suzana and Raquel).
This latest shining moment in American women's soccer was one to bask in on a delightful 79-degree day rather than one to sweat out on a warm Georgia night. "It's just the first day, but what a way to start," said Hamm. "To see the crowd and to see the atmosphere around the game is absolutely phenomenal."
She can remember when. When the United States won the first Women's World Cup in China in 1991, hardly anyone noticed. Then Norway upset the Americans in the semifinals in 1995. So now America's veteran players, the growing number of fans supporting the national team and this World Cup's organizers are united in one mighty effort they hope will result in victory on July 10. If the Americans don't make it to the final, interest surely will plummet. Today's game was one both the players and the games' promoters can build on.
"I can't tell you how proud it makes me feel wearing this jersey," Hamm said. "We will remember this day."
Marla Messing was happy, too. A top executive with the 1994 men's World Cup Organizing Committee, she is CEO of the 1999 Women's World Cup Organizing Committee and credited with upgrading the original plans from a modest undertaking at mostly small East Coast venues to big stadiums coast-to-coast. She caught the excitement that night in Georgia and could see the growing interest in soccer at those Olympics. Saturday was everything she had hoped it would be.
"To start off like this you couldn't ask for anything more," Messing said. "It's great for soccer, it's great for women's sports, it's great for the women's national team. When there are no more tickets to sell and you're sitting in a full stadium, it's an incredible feeling."
The Americans suffered a few shaky moments to start the game. After waving happily to the huge crowd, the players were nervous for about 12 minutes. Then Hamm started the scoring in the 17th minute with her spectacular left-footer high in the net from 15 yards. She assisted on a goal by Julie Foudy in the 73rd minute with a cross-field pass. The Americans repeatedly swept downfield as a cohesive unit, their midfielders flowing with the forwards, to maintain a steady pressure. When they attacked, it was as waves hitting the shore.
Hamm's accurate passing helped sustain the U.S. team's ball control. Those passes provided other scoring opportunities. Cindy Parlow hit the right post in the 24th minute. Kristine Lilly hit the crossbar in the 56th minute. Parlow had a straight-away blast from 15 yards denied on a leaping deflection by goalkeeper Dorthe Larsen. All came off passes distributed by Hamm. She was taken out in the 88th minute to a standing ovation, then joined in the applause the next minute when Lilly finished the scoring.
Unlike the 1996 Olympic final, which NBC chose not to televise, missing an exquisite game, ABC beamed Saturday's festivities and will return for the title game, which promises to be more exciting. In between, ESPN2 will carry 21 games while nine will be shown on ESPN. It remains to be seen what the American TV audience will be, but a billion people in 74 countries are expected to watch the games on television. The U.S. now will move on to its next first-round games with one intention only. "Anything less than winning the World Cup," said midfielder Michelle Akers, "would be a disappointment."
United States 3, Denmark 0
N. Korea vs. Nigeria, 9:30 p.m., ESPN2
U.S. vs. Nigeria, 8:30 p.m., ESPN
N. Korea vs. Denmark, 9 p.m., ESPN2 (delayed broadcast at 10:30 p.m.)
Nigeria vs. Denmark, 4 p.m., ESPN2
U.S. vs. N. Korea, 7 p.m., ESPN2
Brazil 7, Mexico 1
Germany vs. Italy, 7 p.m., ESPN2
Brazil vs. Italy, 6 p.m., ESPN2
Germany vs. Mexico, 11:30 p.m., ESPN (broadcast at 12:30 a.m. Friday)
Mexico vs. Italy, 4:30 p.m., ESPN2 (broadcast at 12:30 a.m. June 28)
Germany vs. Brazil, 1:30 p.m., ESPN2
Japan 1, Canada 1
Norway vs. Russia, 4 p.m., ESPN2
Norway vs. Canada, 6 p.m., ESPN2
Japan vs. Russia, 9 p.m., ESPN2 (broadcast at 10:30 a.m.)
Canada vs. Russia, noon, ESPN
Norway vs. Japan, 7:30 p.m., ESPN2
China 2, Sweden 1
Australia vs. Ghana, 1:30 p.m., ESPN
Australia vs. Sweden, 8:30 p.m., ESPN2
China vs. Ghana, 11:30 p.m., ESPN2 (broadcast at 12:30 a.m. Thursday)
China vs. Australia, 2:30 p.m., ESPN
Ghana vs. Sweden, 5 p.m., ESPN2
CAPTION: Denmark's Louise Hansen (7) has leg up on United States's Joy Fawcett, who misses the ball. (Photo ran in an earlier edition)
CAPTION: Mia Hamm launches left-footer for United States's first goal, in first half, in 3-0 victory over Denmark.