It's true that Jack Kent Cooke Stadium is not yet a famous soccer venue and may never be, but so far it is best known for a header. That one, of course, was Gus Frerotte's head-butting of the wall that encloses the field, a loopy act that suggested he would not be the Washington Redskins' future leader even when he recovered. Last evening, Ann Kristin Aarones of Norway delivered the kind of header that makes sense. She put her head on the ball -- with a mere nod, really -- to score a goal that gave the Norwegians a 2-1 lead over Canada and sent them on their rollicking way to a 7-1 rout.
Norway's women played better than any team yet seen at Cooke Stadium. Yes, better than the best teams the NFL could muster as opposition to the Redskins for the last two years. The Norwegians were more graceful and, definitely, more dominating. They scored off a give-and-go, a corner kick, a free kick. Norway, after all, is defending champion in this third Women's World Cup, and such players as Aarones, who led the 1995 tournament with six goals, are among the best female athletes in the world.
Aarones, 26, stands 6 feet, making her effective in the air and easy to spot by her midfielders when she is planted in scoring position. She settled her team and set its course with two goals and an assist for a 3-1 Norway lead. "Football is not only in the foot, but also in the head," said Per-Mathias Hogmo, Norway's coach, looking pleased as he reduced soccer to its fundamentals as Vince Lombardi used to do American football, calling it simply blocking and tackling. The Norwegians are just introducing themselves in this tournament.
Only 16,448 saw their clinic and the game that followed, a 3-1 victory by Sweden over Australia -- the doubleheader, rather than single games, is a more economically feasible format that FIFA is using for the Women's World Cup. At that, the crowd was barely smaller than the one at the Rose Bowl Sunday, and slightly larger than that at Foxboro Stadium -- comparable situations because none featured the U.S. team.
Getting to Cooke Stadium took some concentration. One had to remember not to go to RFK Stadium, which has become something of a soccer tradition, a much-appreciated venue among the sport's growing audience. Yesterday many had to battle rush hour traffic on the Beltway for the 6 o'clock first-game start. But RFK officials didn't want the Women's Cup games unless they could be assured the championship match. They took a hard-line approach based on their projections that games not involving the U.S. team would not draw well.
It's hard to argue the point except to say that no Metro goes to Cooke. The losers are the fans, as usual, because in this instance there's no comparison when soccer is played between old RFK -- which even 16,000 can shake -- and the sterile setting at Cooke Stadium. Nevertheless, here we are, looking up at the vast and empty top deck that blots out the sky. It's hard to catch the sport's passion in such a place, but we're making do and it's fun enough, maybe just short of festive. The playing field is lush, although the narrow confines force an extra degree of agility from corner kickers. Small spaces have been left between advertising signboards at the field's four corners, so to execute a corner kick one must emerge from between, say, the McDonald's and Fujifilm signs.
The Norwegians could handle such annoyances easily. Like Norway's men's World Cup teams, the women play long ball. They push the ball forward with long passes on the wings and long passes into scoring position in the penalty area. From up close they peppered goalkeeper Nicci Wright for the last 45 minutes as the sun set on Canada. "Nicci, even though she let in seven goals, played a strong game," said Canada's coach, Neil Turnbull. "Good teams like Norway will punish you."
You almost could feel Canada's pain. Between Norway's fifth and sixth goals, Wright stopped a hard shot with her face. The ball knocked one of her contact lenses out of place. It's true that women's soccer is marked by sweet gestures. The American team's equipment manager left a long-stemmed rose on top of each uniform he distributed before the U.S. team's first game last Saturday. But there was nothing gentle in that driving shot by Marianne Pettersen that flattened Wright.
"We will become better each day we're here in the United States," Hogmo said, somewhat ominously. Norway looked as if it could knock out any team in this tournament, that the Americans and Chinese and anyone else with championship ideas might beware. But Wright wasn't ready to concede the championship to Norway. "Against other teams, they'll have a harder time maintaining that style [of long passing] for 90 minutes," she said.
Two more doubleheaders will be played here. Brazil and Germany will meet Sunday in the most promising first-round matchup of the tournament, to be followed by Nigeria-Denmark. Two quarterfinal games, one in all likelihood to include the U.S. team, will follow July 1. As good as the Norwegians were last night, this may have been only part of the prelude. So the Americans hope.
CAPTION: Steve LaFlond waves a Canadian flag as he joins Rich Gornik, center, and son Alex Gornik in celebration.
CAPTION: Australia goalkeeper Belinda Kitching has a close up view of Hanna Ljungberg's goal for Sweden.