It's hardly a secret that this is a guy town, maybe the last guy town. It's a Big Guy town. Every guy, from Al Capone to Harry Caray, has been a Big Guy. Big and strong has been celebrated here since, and maybe before, Carl Sandburg wrote about the "stormy, husky, brawling, City of the Big Shoulders." Billboards scream "the newest big thing," "almost full size," a "full-bodied beverage." You don't have to go far to find big guys carrying something big, like bags of ice that strong sweaty guys carried on their shoulders into Soldier Field this humid day and poured into big containers at the concession stands for Thursday evening's sellout crowd of 65,080. A tough-ticket town, Chicago, especially when the Bulls and Bears were good, but now limos were pulling up and Big Guys -- Big Guys always get the tough tickets -- were getting out and walking up a red carpet into this storied stadium of majestic columns to see . . . women's soccer.
The Women's World Cup, featuring the U.S. team, was, temporarily at least, the toast of Mike Ditka's town. Ditka and Butkus, Terkel and Royko, Daley I and II, the town where Harry Caray's voice ("Cubs win! Cubs win!") is not yet stilled, thanks to tape, and there's always a baseball game on radio. Where restaurants hang big LeRoy Neiman prints. Yes, Jane Addams worked here, a woman once was mayor here, Mrs. O'Leary is part of lore, and there's Oprah. But mostly it's about guys here, like guys in big leather Bulls jackets. Boxers always have been loved, like the legendary Tony Zale, the "Man of Steel" from Gary, Ind., close enough to be claimed; Andrew Golota found a home here. The Monsters of the Midway played here.
I don't know if Thursday signaled change but at least everything was different for a while. Chicago woke up to see Mia Hamm taking half the front page of the Chicago Sun-Times. And more: a full-color poster of America's most famous female soccer player in the middle of the paper. The Tribune noted that today in 1895 Jack Dempsey was born, but its lead sports story featured U.S. midfielder Michelle Akers. Last week it featured Marla Messing, head of the Women's World Cup organizing committee; if not from Chicago itself, at least she was from close enough to be hailed as "Glenview's own."
Suddenly, everyone in town was talking women's soccer. Women and girls in soccer jerseys all but took over the streets, traffic was halted for blocks as game time neared. Crowds on foot hurried past parts of a perfect Chicago art project called "Cows on Parade" -- the city is overrun with big painted and sculpted cows -- to get to Soldier Field (the name itself fits the guy concept, but it's dedicated equally to women). There, Brazil played Italy, followed by the United States and Nigeria. It was as tough a ticket as the men's World Cup opener here in 1994. "It was a very easy sell," said Messing, looking out with satisfaction at the fast-filling stadium during halftime of the first game.
Not incidently, that game was dominated, on the site where fights like Dempsey-Tunney and football games galore went down in history, by . . . Sissi. She is the Pele (well, almost) of Brazilian women's soccer, having scored three times last Saturday in Brazil's opening victory against Mexico and both goals this evening as Brazil shut out Italy, 2-0. Sissi, who just might be mentioned in conversation late Thursday night in some Big Guy restaurant here, will be coming Sunday to that Wembley by the Beltway, Jack Kent Cooke Stadium.
Now to Thursday evening's main event. The roar from this stunning single-deck sea of people in a sunset glow was for the American women merely trotting out to warm up. Fans craned to pick out No. 9 among the white-clad U.S.A., Hamm, who reportedly earned $1 million from endorsements last year. Big Guy money. On a radio sports-talk show piped into parts of the stadium, someone asked, "Is there more interest in soccer than we've been led to believe?" Someone else commented, "I can't sit down at a soccer game. It's too exciting." In the stadium somebody asked, "Did you ever think you'd see a scene like this for a woman's soccer game?" Well, no, not before the 1996 Olympic gold medal game.
Messing, sounding like a CEO, said that soccer has tapped into "the teenage girl market" as well as "the David Letterman audience," Letterman having shrewdly adopted the American team. A thousand camera flashes greeted the Americans before kickoff. And then -- what was this? -- the fleet Nigerians in green taking it to the beloved home side. Nkiru Okosieme scored in only the game's second minute. Moments later, two American defenders collided and knocked each other flat and Nigeria almost scored again. Then Hamm was decked by a vicious slide-tackle. On her feet, she booted wide left and the crowd groaned in unison as if to say, "Say it ain't so, Mia."
It wasn't. To the chant of "U-S-A" and a steady crowd roar, the U.S. women rolled, 7-1, substituting liberally in the second half. Hamm responded in the 19th minute by lofting a free kick that ended up in the Nigerian net, ruled an "own" goal after the ball last touched a Nigerian. Hamm then broke free down the right sideline and planted a strong kick into the net. Tiffeny Milbrett made it three goals in four minutes. Before the half, Hamm fed Kristine Lilly for No. 4, Julie Foudy assisted Akers on No. 5 and Cindy Parlow scored No. 6 on a pass from Brandi Chastain. Isn't this the kind of scoring the NBA craves? And isn't it possible that somewhere in the Chicago night some Big Guy felt his heart soften?
CAPTION: Nigeria midfielder Florence Omagbemi tries to slow down forward Tiffeny Milbrett, who scored U.S.'s third goal.