The Summer of Love

The Women's Soccer Team Swept the U.S. Public Off Its Feet. What Happens Now That the Affair Is Over?

 Pasadena, California— It was your typical summer affair: fast, furious, and passionate; lovers swept away and full of promise for something with long-term potential. Much more than a tryst, the affair built to a climax that couldn't have been penned better by Danielle Steele. But now the country's love affair with women's soccer and the world champion U.S. Women's National Team may very well fizzle as quickly as it ignited. Still, like most short-lived loves, it has left an indelible mark, sealed with an unforgettable goodbye kiss.

They entreated the world to watch them play and, for three weeks, the world did. Certainly all of Southern California did. Even though the third place match between Norway and Brazil (Brazil 1, Norway 0 on penalty kicks) was at 10:15 a.m. local time and the U.S.­China match didn't kick off until just after 1, by 8:15 traffic was already backing up the streets that wind their way to the Rose Bowl. There were also swarms of lot vultures charging $30 for parking, and whispers of $800 tickets.

With flares, flags, photos, and fly-bys, the final itself featured as much pageantry and ponytails as the Cup opener in Giants Stadium. And with 90,185 in attendance, it broke the record set on that opening day for the largest crowd ever to see a women's sporting event. It was also probably the only time anthem- crooners Hanson would share billing with Jennifer Lopez— and definitely the largest crowd the latter can ever hope to perform in front of.

But in contrast to the totally lopsided tourney opener, the final delivered . . . for the most part. Before the game, U.S. coach Tony DiCicco said possession would be the "key" (as if any game in which you don't maintain possession can turn out well), but successful communication and subtle one- and two-touch play were the true critical elements. Both teams were frustrating to watch, if evenly matched. The slightest fumbled touch— and both teams had plenty— and the opposing side was immediately there, closing down like vise grips. The glare of the midday California sun made matters worse. Impotent runs were cut off just short of the goal. Would-be shots did not get off cleanly. It all prompted the surge of the rising crowd to fall back limp in their seats.

The Chinese defense seemed impenetrable and often faster than the U.S. offense. Always in the mix was the athlete who embodies what it truly means to wear the number 10, Michelle Akers. She repeatedly reminded everyone watching of the incalculable effect that her vision, ferocity, and presence can have on a game. It was a quintessential tension-laden finale that— although a regulation win is always preferred— went to a climactic penalty-kick shootout after two excruciating 15-minute "golden goal" periods. China had blown away defending world champs Norway 5-0 in the semifinal, and beat the Yanks themselves 2-1 in their last meeting, so the U.S. knew they were in for a tough match. "The two best teams made it to the final," said DiCicco.

Goalkeeping, in the forms of Briana Scurry and Chinese legend Gao "Great Wall of China" Hong, was fantastic at both ends, but perhaps the most miraculous save was off the line and off the head of match MVP Kristine Lilly. Amid the bodily flurry in front of the U.S. goal and in the first 15 minutes of extra time, Lilly took away the best scoring chance either team had.

During the penalty-kick round, it was Brandi Chastain who sealed China's fate, but the star of those final moments was Scurry. The American goalkeep uses visualization techniques, which she employed before the PKs as she hunched on the sidelines waiting for her time in net. "I see myself blocking shots and making saves, and I never watch the other penalty kicks," she explained after the match. "I had just missed two, and I said to myself, 'I need to get one . . . I need to get one.' Then as I looked up and saw [Liu Ying] walking up, something came over me. I don't know why, but I just knew I would get that one."

One was all the U.S. needed, and it was all over but the cheering— a great deal of which was chanting for Akers, who could barely walk after suffering from heat exhaustion and having her bell rung in the final seconds of regulation. But she had her few solo moments at midfield and, unfortunately for us, they will be her last in a Women's World Cup.

They lived together, played together and— as the TV promos told us— went on dates and had their cavities filled together. And even if they hadn't won Saturday, just by being there the U.S. achieved an unqualified success for international women's sports. "I could not have scripted it better," said a champagne-soaked Marla Messing, head of the Women's World Cup organizing committee, after the game.

The whirlwind affair swept up the players as well as their suitors. The morning of the June 19 opening match, there was what Chastain described as a "camp-like" atmosphere in the hall of the U.S. team hotel. Tunes were cranked up on their boom box, and suddenly some of the most accomplished athletes in the world were dancing in the hotel hallway and painting each other's finger- and toenails red, white, and blue— before putting on their game faces. In the three weeks that followed, their throngs of adoring fans grew to include the First Family and David Letterman.

Bill Clinton was on hand in Pasadena, as he was for the quarterfinal in Washington. The prez himself even arranged for Mia Hamm's husband, Marine Corps pilot Christian Corry, stationed in Japan just weeks before the start of the tournament, to be granted leave in order to attend the final. And those aspiring to Clinton's throne were not above wrapping themselves in the teams's star-spangled success: a plane circling overhead had a banner that read, "Go team USA. Make history— Elizabeth Dole."

They drew attention from every corner of the globe, even if those corners were merely fascinated by the fact that a women's sporting event could draw such attention. After their final training, the day before their torrid affair would end, they stood sweat-soaked and beaming, and they turned the table on the unfathomable number of journalists who had constantly descended upon them. Perched on benches in the Rose Bowl locker room, the women brought out cameras and took snapshots of the press— again, like it was the last day of camp.

As for what the future holds, Messing knows that the insane level of attention that the women and the sport have received will naturally die down. But she has hopes that "the Women's World Cup as a sporting event will be firmly embedded" in the minds of all sports fans, and that "next time, it will be eagerly anticipated."

There are also still mumblings— growing louder by the news cycle— of using WWC '99 and the 2000 Olympics as springboards for a women's professional league. Messing feels that the purpose of a league would be to "allow our athletes to make a career out of what they do best. We all want to make careers out of what we do best."

But for now, summer's over and the women will head home to their different corners of the country: some will go back to school— either as coaches or students— others home to families and kids and club teams. The country may love 'em and leave 'em, but it will never forget them.

Next summer, there's a romantic rendezvous planned for Sydney, Australia, and those who came to watch them play will hopefully be there: a little older, a little wiser, and ready to fall in love all over again.

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