There is magic afoot across the land. It's called soccer. Two young girls booted passes back and forth this morning amid the crush of holiday travelers in the San Francisco airport. Over morning coffee, people talked excitedly about the U.S. Women's World Cup team and its 2-0 victory over Brazil Sunday at Stanford Stadium. The American players have stirred interest across the country. In what has evolved into a remarkable national tour, they have averaged more than 64,000 for their five World Cup games. Sunday's crowd of 73,123 was second only to the 78,972 for the Giants Stadium opener.
Each time the U.S. has won a World Cup game, ticket sales have surged at the next venue. Next stop: the 85,000-seat Rose Bowl Saturday in Pasadena, Calif., to play China for the Cup. Much of America has taken to its heart a team that is quintessentially American, one that plays hard, plays with teamwork, plays its soccer to score, plays to win. Their style is from Mars while off the field they're unquestionably from Venus.
Forwards Mia Hamm and Kristine Lilly, midfielders Michelle Akers and Julie Foudy and defenders Joy Fawcett and Carla Overbeck are playing on their third World Cup team. They're veterans not easily deterred. Akers, 33, who plays on aching knees and struggles with chronic fatigue syndrome, took a kick in the face Sunday, but was back from sideline repairs in little more than a minute. Fawcett returned to practice two weeks after giving birth to her second daughter in May 1997.
The team's popularity derives not just from its play but from its collective personality. The players seem to care genuinely about one another. They have continued to be patient and congenial in public even as their anonymity has vanished with growing media attention. They're anything but self-absorbed, as well-known male athletes too frequently have proven to be, resulting in abysmal behavior that detracts from their sports and makes people cringe.
Having flown commercial for most of the World Cup, the U.S. soccer players were taken by charter on Friday from Washington to their West Coast semifinal because of the brief time between games. For them it was a novelty being whisked to the plane to depart from the tarmac and a new experience enjoying the space aboard such a plane's reconfigured interior. "If that's how professional players travel, I'm all for that," said Brandi Chastain.
Fresh air is blowing across the sports landscape because of this team. And there's no reason to think that their demeanor would change should they become more famous and a little wealthier, if their success results in a professional women's league in the United States. Hamm reportedly made $1 million in 1998 from commercials, yet the other day she stressed her goal of helping to increase interest in youth soccer and her dream of a professional league to which young women can aspire. She's said that before, only now with the Women's World Cup as a forum her message is being heard.
"We've been doing this for so many years," said Foudy, "playing soccer and training against each other and killing each other in practice and growing up watching World Cups and knowing that is the pinnacle of success in your sport. And now to have the chance to reach the highest heights and have a real chance to win this thing in your own country in front of 100,000 fans. That's our dream."
Obviously, the coach, Tony DiCicco, feels pressure to win the World Cup because the United States is the favorite. But beating China, a nemesis and runner-up to the United States in the 1996 Olympics, will not be easy. Whatever happens Saturday, DiCicco has brought forth the very best these players have to offer as athletes and people. They don't debate whether athletes should be role models; they want to be.
"I didn't know much about this team in 1991," said DiCicco, 50, who grew up in Wethersfield, Conn., and was soccer captain at Springfield College. "Once I experienced the team and saw their passion for the game and how they go after it in practice and play every game, and saw the way they set goals for themselves and fight to achieve them, well, it was a dream come true becoming their head coach. All of my coaching goals and ambitions have been answered by this particular team."
Guided by reason and no less humble than ever, these players nevertheless are highly skilled. The mark of any solid team is to make good on its opportunities, and that's precisely what the Americans did against Brazil. Cindy Parlow made no polite inquiries of the goalkeeper Marvilha when she bobbled a pass across the goal mouth from Foudy. Parlow put her head to the loose ball and, like that, the score was 1-0 in the fifth minute.
The teams played evenly for much of the second half, as Akers in midfield helped prevent Sissi, who had scored seven times in four games, from even taking a shot. An inspired goalkeeper, Briana Scurry, made three spectacular saves, once tipping a ball headed for the upper left corner over the crossbar to land harmlessly on the grass out of bounds. And when the Americans' long-awaited next scoring chance finally came, they capitalized. Hamm was fouled, giving Akers a penalty kick in the 80th minute. She didn't miss.
The team flew to Southern California this morning, tired, hoping to be rejuvenated this week in part by rest. But the Chinese are the ones who have been criss-crossing the country, opening on the West Coast, playing their third game at Giants Stadium, then flying back to the West Coast for their quarterfinal game, to Massachusetts for their semifinal and back again to the West today. They didn't look at all tired, routing Norway 5-0 Sunday. And Norway was defending champion in the Women's World Cup. Like the U.S. squad, the Chinese play with spirit and unity -- and they have exactly the same ambition.
CAPTION: Lianne Segal and daughter Molly, 6, are among the throng of fans who greeted U.S. women's team as they boarded a bus at Los Angeles Airport.