Congrats To The U.S. Women's Soccer Team. Now Go Do Something Interesting.
By Jeff Smith
JULY 19, 1999: AFTER ALL THE hype, the cheers and the tears, the red, white and blue painted faces, the ESPN extortion campaign to drag President Clinton away from his day job, it all came down to a zip-zip tie. I am still struggling with the concept of a world championship being won in a game that ends in a double goose egg.
I am somewhat more at ease with a contest in which a woman named Brandi (with an i) pulls her shirt off in front of the world's biggest television audience, and then does the other thing you're not supposed to do on TV.
Brandi Chastain, who just booted the fifth straight penalty kick for Team U.S.A. and thereby gave her sisters the World Cup, skinned down to her navy blue sports bra and ran into the middle of a group hug that ABC Sports had the good graces to watch in silence. As the overflow crowd of 90,000 at the Rose Bowl roared and stomped, an eerie silence hovered over the field. (Or, in soccer language, the "pitch." Actually, in soccer language, soccer is "football." Never mind.) But you could lip-read the feelings of Brandi and her team-mates.
"I love you guys."
Isn't that nice? I mean, really.
When the microphones came back on, Brandi was being interviewed about her championship-winning kick, but she was more interested in giving props to her injured sister, Michelle Akers, who got sucker-punched late in the second half and had to take a seat.
"She's the toughest god-damned player there is," Brandi said. The interviewer, more accustomed to invocations of deity of the "I'd like to praise the Lord for helping me hospitalize my opponent," variety, blanched and changed the subject. Let's hear it for the unvarnished truth.
(The next day over a BLT and a glass of milk, I was reading voluminous post-mortems on America's latest triumph and, under a color photo of Brandi in her bra with her soccer jersey waving overhead, was the illuminating datum that Ms. Chastain had earlier appeared, clad only in a discretely placed soccer ball, in a widely circulated photo. The woman's career paths are many and varied, it would seem.)
Meanwhile, back on the pitch...
The hometown crowd was in a near-swoon over the storybook ending to a veritable made-for-TV scenario of a World Cup Soccer Tournament. For the past two weeks scoffers and cynics had been jumping on the band wagon until the tires blew.
· They'll never fill the stadiums, the unbelievers said. So the visionaries booked the tourney into the biggest venues in the country...and sold them out.
· They'll never sell soccer, let alone women's soccer, to the advertisers, went the conventional wisdom. So Michael Jordan does commercials with Mia Hamm, and ABC sells its time, and the biggest TV audience ever to watch a woman's sporting event tunes in from every electrified locale on the planet.
· The American girls will tank before the finals and nobody in America will give a damn any more. So Mia and friends -- now Mia and Michelle and Briana and Brandi and Tiffeny and a lot of other famous young women -- march into the championship game like Sherman on his way to Atlanta.
· They'll never beat the Chinese...
It was swell and it was heart-warming, and when the Air Force flew over in diamond formation my ears got moist, and except for In Synch doing the Star Spangled Banner like a pop love song, it was mercifully understatedäbut you know what?
It was still soccer.
And though I tuned in on purpose to watch a soccer match for the first time in my life, because the story of these team-oriented women of vaulting athletic prowess was so compelling, and because ESPN had done such a brilliantly hilarious job of extorting President Clinton into flying to Pasadena to spectate (Seriously, Bill: there's a whole flock of sweaty babes there, and one of them has a habit of taking off her shirt when she gets excited. See if you can find some way to get Hillary to be in upstate New York or something), I still could not stay entirely awake through the second half of the match.
Because I am an American, and Americans do not by nature take to sports where championships are decided by defensive battles in which nobody scores through 90 minutes of regulation play, a couple extra minutes to cover the downtime for injuries and substitutions (not unlike making up snow days at the end of our school year here in Patagonia, and equally thrilling to watch on television) and two more 15-minute periods of sudden death. Sudden death by what, ennui and tedium?
Perhaps as an American raised on cheap gasoline, drugs, sex, rock and roll, and high-dollar, high-scoring blood sports, I am insufficiently subtle of mind to appreciate the choreography of those 22 persons running around seemingly at random on a lawn with too-few lines on it. To me it looks like a Chinese fire drill that awakened a dormitory full of foreign exchange students and sent them outdoors in panic in their jammies.
I guess it's sexist of me to appreciate and enjoy it more when it's 22 athletic women running around on the grass after a ball, than when high-paid grown men do it, and the announcers gush in Oxford-accented English that what I've just dozed-off during was the most exciting thing to happen in sport since a Brit named Roger Bannister ran a mile in 4 minutes and practically expired from exhaustion. But I happen to believe that with fitness and raw athleticism on the order of what I witnessed at the Rose Bowl last Saturday, these women now basking in the warmth of a World Cup and the adoration of a grateful nation, could turn their attention to a real, mainstream American professional sport, and cash in bigtime.
You know, roller derby is making a comeback.
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