Passion Play

In the summer of 1991, the best-kept state secret in China had to be the U.S. Women's Soccer Team's 2-1 World Cup win over Norway. The tournament's high scorer, Michelle Akers, booted the winning goal with just two minutes left in the final game at Guanzhou, and when time ran out, the American players leaped into an ecstatic pile on the field. They had gone undefeated in China. They had won the Cup. And they partied until their plane touched down in New York.

Exactly one reporter greeted them at JFK Airport. Two baffled travelers on the concourse asked the players if they were part of a volleyball team.

That was then; this is now. In case you've been lost in the parking lot at the monster truck races, the third World Cup tournament in women's soccer history has been under way in this country for the past three weeks, filling frenzied stadiums from Boston to Palo Alto. This Saturday, the favored U.S. team will face their old hosts, China, in a final that is expected to fill Pasadena's Rose Bowl with 95,000 shouting fans.

The American women have exploded into a major phenomenon, and Saturday's final promises to be a defining moment for women's soccer--indeed, for all women's sports--in America. Whether that moment lasts out the summer is another question.

For now, the best-case scenario is unfolding full tilt. The U.S. team--so deep that five of its rejects play for Mexico, one for Germany--has reached the finals on a stirring mixture of sheer talent and unbridled passion. Corporate sponsors that have poured $6 million into the Women's World Cup are reaping the benefits of a huge box office--32 games, 600,000 tickets sold (100,000 more than projections)--and TV ratings on ESPN and ABC that have astonished network executives. America's newfound enthusiasm for a game long perceived by the masses as a stunning bore best left to swooning Italians fond of fake death scenes could have dramatic effects--including a professional women's soccer league modeled on the WNBA and the lucrative women's golf and tennis tours.

For Madison Avenue, the attractions are even more evident. First, the women's game produces more scoring than the goal-stingy men's version: Witness all the 3-1, 4-2 and 7-1 scores in this World Cup. Second, there's Yankee star power on the field. Goalkeeper Briana Scurry, who has posted three shutouts in the tournament, is cover girl for the nation's sports sections; the hero of 1991, Akers, now age thirty, is the high scorer in this World Cup, too, with ten goals. But the real centerpiece of America's team is Mia Hamm, said to be the finest female soccer player in the world. Coast to coast, little girls chant her name, wear replicas of her No. 9 jersey and beg for her autograph.

"MIA!" the stadium placards read. "Major Inspiration to America!" A decade ago, no soccer player on the planet--male or female--could have landed a U.S. TV spot selling anything. Today Hamm, who's the daughter of a dancer and a fighter pilot, spars with basketball legend Michael Jordan ("Anything you can do, I can do better!") in an expensive ad campaign for Gatorade.

This summer, there's also a new Barbie doll on the market--dressed in soccer togs.

Does the Women's World Cup showcase mean a major breakthrough for a game that's always had problems in America? Not necessarily. "We're opening hearts, eyes and minds," says Tiffeny Milbrett, one of the heroes in last Thursday's 3-2 come-from-behind win over Germany. "But it's hard to tell if the excitement will last."

That excitement's been a long time coming--and not just for soccer. In 1972, the year federal legislation popularly known as "Title 9" first prohibited gender discrimination in school and college athletic programs, a national survey found that only 1 percent of American high school girls identified themselves as athletes. Today 43 percent do. But there are still inequities. At Wimbledon last week, the argument continued over unequal prize money in men's and women's tennis tournaments. After the U.S. Women's Ice Hockey Team won the gold medal at the Nagano Olympics, there was plenty of talk about a women's pro hockey league--but the voices have gone mysteriously silent this summer.

Meanwhile, in Pasadena, Hamm and her teammates will take home a modest $12,500 each--if they beat China in Saturday's final. At the men's World Cup in France last summer, the noticeably non-talented U.S. players got $20,000 a piece--without winning a single game.

A crowd of more than 54,000--including local fans Bill, Hillary and Chelsea Clinton--crowded into Washington, D.C.'s Jack Kent Cooke Stadium last week to watch a quarterfinal match between the U.S. and Germany, followed by Brazil versus Nigeria. ESPN2, however, lost heart. Game two started on time, but the network preempted most of the first half--in favor of NASCAR qualifying from the super-speedway in Daytona.

Such slights are one thing; the burden of carrying social and athletic history into the 21st century is another. "Is there pressure?" Milbrett asks. "I really didn't know what pressure was until that first whistle in front of 78,000 people at Giants Stadium."

Beholding their opening World Cup opponent, Denmark, on June 19, the home-field Americans were confident but queasy. "We felt the pressure on our shoulders big-time," Milbrett admits. "For the game, for the country, for women."

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