Hail To The Champions

Last Saturday, 90,000 people sat for over four hours in the hot sun to watch a soccer game in the United States. They weren't a collection of émigrés watching Mexico play Italy. They were watching a United States team. The crowds for the World Cup Final may mean a great deal for soccer in the US, but they almost certainly mean a great deal to women athletes. All you had to do was hear the quaver in Robin Roberts' voice at the end of the game, thinking of how far women's sports had come since she was an athlete and you knew something had happened far beyond a US victory in a sport we don't really care about. They had come to see women decide a championship, not because they couldn't get tickets to a more important Olympic event, but because this was the place to be.

Given the traditional American antipathy to soccer, this entire event was quite interesting. Oddly, this is the center of the women's soccer universe, which may explain the passion for the sport. Americans love winners and we may be another century away from winning the Men's World Cup, so this is the one that matters most to us. We also lack the sophistication to notice or care that the quality of the game is vastly inferior to men's soccer, in much the same way women's basketball is to men's.

Advertisers had brought these girls into our homes, which was reflected by the signs being carried by fans, most of which referred to the ads. This is a key part of sports marketing the last two decades, as Air Jordan helped make MJ a legend before his on court heroics had made the nickname superfluous. So we knew their faces and some of their names and we liked them. They were the girls next door -- at least if you live in a middle-class white neighborhood, which didn't hurt them either. I'm not implying racism here, but let's face it, white Americans like to root for girls named Brandy, Julie, Michelle, and Mia a lot more than they like Chamequa or Tyesha. The suburban soccer moms and dads can envision their daughters being out on that field someday as they sat next to them with their faces painted red, white, and blue.

Whatever the future of soccer is, this was a triumph for all supporters of women's sports. These are the children of Title IX, the law that worked. It got girls and young women into sports in schools, it taught them that being an athlete, or a leader, or a competitor was a good thing. Look at these women and you'll see a beauty which we can only pray young girls emulate. Far better to want to look like Brandy Chastain than to starve yourself to look like Kate Moss, or have surgery to look like Pamela Anderson. I'm sure Robin Roberts was thinking back to her childhood and thinking how her athletic tendencies were looked at strangely, she may have been called a tomboy, as those around her assumed she'd "grow out of it." Those days should be gone forever.

With all the excitement surrounding the event, it was unfortunate they were playing soccer. This is the second World Cup Final in Pasadena and we're still waiting for our first goal. As a bonus, the third place game was scoreless. This was the fourth time these teams had played this year and they were too familiar by half, as they shut down everything, had every move covered. Mia Hamm and Sun Wen rarely touched the ball, were immediately surrounded when they did and both teams got a little conservative. As in most soccer games of this magnitude, a 0-0 game ratcheted up the pressure and made the teams even more careful. The first real threat came in the first overtime period, where a cross left a corner of the USA net open and Kathryn Lilly stepped in to make the game saving deflection. After that came the foolish penalty kick conclusion. Brianna Scurry made the big save, the US was victorious, and Brandy Chastain got to show off her sports bra (en route to an endorsement, no doubt.) The US had the better of the play for the most part and the ultimate result seemed fair enough. Especially for the assembled crowd.

Sunday they got to go to Disneyland, had an awards ceremony downtown and got ready to head for the talk show circuit. Like so many of the women athletes, from the WNBA to track and field, they feel a bond with the fans. They also feel a responsibility to their sport and its future. Maybe some day they will be as rich and arrogant as many male athletes. For now they are our golden girls, next to appear in the 2000 Olympic Games, defending that championship. You can bet that this time around NBC will find a way to slip them in between synchronized swimming and ballroom dancing. Well done, soccerbabes.

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