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."

In this tournament, coach Tony DiCicco's charges have had a few scary moments. A swift, willing Nigeria team got up on them 1-0 before the American talent took its toll and won 7-1. And in the first five minutes of the crucial quarterfinal in Washington, defender Brandi Chastain lost her bearings, back-passed the ball wide of U.S. goalie Briana Scurry and scored an opening goal for the German side. Trailing 2-1 in the second half, the Americans had to call up all their skill and courage just to win the game and avert a major catastrophe.

Had Chastain and company blown that one, no one would be talking significant social evolution this week. In fact, nothing short of a second World Cup title is likely to give U.S. women's soccer the big boost it craves. In contrast to America's men's team, an acknowledged also-ran with virtually no shot these days at competing with Brazil or Italy or France, the U.S. women are odds-on to win the Cup. They took home Olympic gold in 1996, and U.S. fans simply don't expect them to get beat by Germany. Or anyone else.

"That game stretched us every possible way," Hamm said. "Physically, technically, tactically and emotionally. The Germans are a very sophisticated, strong team. But we have confidence every time we go out there, because we're a veteran team. Being under pressure inspires us."

But will Hamm and company still inspire the country come September?

We lifelong tennis fans figured that the men's game was, if not dead, at least in need of intensive care--the victim of fast courts, space-age racquets and robotic serve-and-volley play. But Pete Sampras and his old pal Andre Agassi put their heads and their ground strokes together on the Fourth of July to save it, at least for now.

This is not to say that Sunday's all-American final on the lawns of Wimbledon was a classic. Sampras, a cold-eyed ripper who finally showed some emotion this time around, blew Agassi off center court in straight sets. But Andre's Lazarus act continues. Two years ago, he had fallen from his high perch (too many nights at the theater, perhaps?) and was ranked 141st in the world. This season he rose from nothingness to win the French Open and complete a rare "career Grand Slam," reach the final at Wimbledon and now say he is eagerly awaiting a big-time rematch with Pete--perhaps at the U.S. Open in late August.

Sampras's win gave him his twelfth Grand Slam title, tying the great Roy Emerson's record, and there is no reason he can't win three or four more Wimbledons before he's through. The grass perfectly suits his big serve, withering ground strokes and sharp volleys.

This renewal of the Sampras-Agassi rivalry, which was the talk of the tour in 1995 and the occasion of silence until last week, is great for the game. So were the tricks Mother Nature played in London. Rain postponed dozens of matches, but for nearly a month before the tournament, the fickle English weather remained warm and sunny, hardening the Wimbledon grass courts. This resulted in higher-bouncing balls, longer rallies and more intricate tactics--just the stuff tennis fans relish in the scintillating women's game and find sorely lacking when the high-powered men take the court.

If the lords of Wimbledon know what they're doing, they'll bake the sheer slickness out of the playing surface next year, too--even if it means crawling over every square inch with hair dryers.

Meanwhile, against all odds, the Sampras-Agassi battle is alive and well. No less than Ali-Frazier, Williams-DiMaggio or Russell-Chamberlain, it's a beautiful thing to behold.

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