In bidding goodbye to those would-be has-beens Mia Hamm, Julie Foudy, Brandi Chastain, Kristine Lilly and Joy Fawcett, the most proper tribute is to raise an adult beverage, blow the foam from the top, swallow deeply and capsize with laughter. That's no doubt what they're off doing right now, reveling as they tell the alternately brave and comedic story of their self-made miracle of pride, the U.S. women's national soccer team. But here's the thing about has-beens. If you make yourself unforgettable, you never have to be one.

They played together for their country one last time at the Olympics, and somehow, some way, they won a last, late gold medal, and even while the ball was still rolling across the pitch we began to miss them. Patently slower and not quite what they once were, ranging in age from 32 to 36, there seemed to be absolutely no way they could win against a fleet and sure-footed Brazilian team that was on the average 10 years younger. But just when there was nothing left in their legs but the sensation of age, a youngster named Abby Wambach headed in a goal in the 112th minute, for a 2-1 victory that sent them out of the game as forever champions.

"We just said, 'We're going out on top, and that's how it's going to be,' " said Foudy, her hair dripping wet under a fisherman's cap, "and we never stopped believing it."

In those last seemingly interminable minutes, the soccer wasn't glorious, but it was tough and it was determined, and the player most representative of that was midfielder and team captain Foudy, who a day earlier was on crutches with a badly sprained ankle. "I think I'll just have them chop it off and I'll drag my stump out there if I have to," Foudy had joked. In fact, she played every last minute of this game, and in doing so reminded us of what we've always loved the American team for most, not the medals, but the honesty of their effort over all those years, when they played with no one watching, for waitresses' pay. "Dedicated," Foudy said. "I think people will remember that we were dedicated."

As the final whistle blew, Hamm suddenly appeared at Foudy's side, and grabbed her in an embrace. Then the circle of the hug began to grow, to include the fellow teammates who essentially founded women's soccer in America more than a dozen years ago, when they made exactly $250 per game, and played across whole continents when it was considered a game strictly for men.

"There are few times in life when you get to write the final chapter the way you want to, and a lot of us got to do that tonight," Hamm said.

For the medal ceremony, they approached the podium together, holding hands, their arms wrapped around each other, no air between them. That's when they started playing what they like to call "the telephone game." Foudy turned to Fawcett and said, "Right foot forward, pass it down," dictating instructions. The message was murmured down the line.

Then Foudy said, "Bottle of vodka, pass it down."

Still cracking up, together they stepped up to the medal stand, and fairly shouted the national anthem. Then they returned to the locker room, where a slightly more somber mood took hold. Some of them had played together for 17 years, sharing a litany of victories: the first Women's World Cup in '91, Olympic gold in Atlanta in '96, and their magnificent World Cup victory again in '99, when Chastain tore off her shirt and displayed the abs heard round the world. But they'd also suffered wrenching losses in the last four years, aging runners-up to younger teams, teams from countries where they had helped to sow the game. "It's gotten harder and harder," Foudy said. "And that makes it sweeter."

But that it's finally time for them to step away is obvious. Hamm, Foudy and Fawcett have all declared their retirements from the international game, while Lilly and Chastain are considering how much longer they can or will play. There was no uncertainty in Hamm, who acknowledged that she was carried through the final by her younger teammates. "If you only knew how my body feels right now," she said. The final goals of the tournament, Foudy pointed out, were scored by some of the youngest members of the team: Heather O'Reilly, 19, Lindsay Tarpley, 20, and Wambach, 24.

The legacy the senior group passes on to the younger players is immense: They can be credited with nothing less than the founding of women's soccer as an international game. But they leave a legacy in the small things, too. Through it all, they've never put a foot wrong, or behaved like anything other than champions. They were the nicest and best behaved athletes on the planet, no self-absorbed egotists, no whining about life's unfairness, no jealous spats or wretched excesses. The worst that could be said of them was that they were joyous carousers. They were one of the few things left in sports you could watch without suspicion.

Perhaps their most pleasant quality as a group was that they weren't particularly conscious of their specialness. Hamm, for instance, has never seemed aware that she's pretty. The greatest goal scorer in the game and one of the most photogenic female athletes is, as it happens, deeply shy. At an awards banquet one night a few years ago, Hamm tried to explain why she had always been so self-conscious in public. The trouble, she said, was that people watched you, whether you liked it or not. "So who am I to say I'm not a role model?" she said.

Even after all these years she still wears the pained expression of a wallflower at a dance, and talks as if it's been unbearably selfish of her to have inflicted this soccer business on us. Hamm's first order of business now that she's retired from international play, she says, is to repay her family. "It's time for me to repay them and ask them what they need in their lives," she said.

In the locker room after the medal ceremony, Hamm, Foudy and the other senior members addressed the team. There was a lot of talk about torch-passing and some final remarks. The theme was, "that it's more than just soccer, you know?" Foudy said. "It's bigger than that."

Then Foudy told the team that it wasn't really goodbye. Whenever the U.S. team plays for a big prize, she said, she will be there, and so will Hamm, and Chastain, and all the others. Only they would be in the bleachers. "We're looking forward to cheering you on, screaming for more gold medals," she said.

It was a pleasant thought Foudy entertained, as she left the stadium as an Olympian for the last time. "We'll be right there, in the front row," she said, "drinking beers and being hooligans."

Julie Foudy, left, Joy Fawcett, Mia Hamm, Kristine Lilly and Brandi Chastain unleash their emotions during the medal ceremony. Olympic triumph marks final time all five will play together for U.S. Mia Hamm, the all-time leading scorer for the U.S. team, blows a kiss to the crowd after her last game.