Women Kicking Balls
Soccer for sisters comes of age

Let's face it. The American Women's World Cup victory is the sports story of 1999. Forget the Knicks' poignantly desperate fourth quarter of game five in the NBA finals, and shrug your shoulders at Andre Agassi's career-resuscitating win at the French Open. These chicks stole the summer, if not the whole year.

Who'da thunk it? There's an old saying about change that goes: "First they laugh at you, then they ignore you, then (when you won't go away) they try to become your best friend." Coverage of women's sports has been just that. We started out the decade with tabloid headlines of the nasty palimony suit of Judy Nelson against tennis great Martina Navratilova and then progressed to skater and trailer-park queen Tonya Harding trying to take out Nancy Kerrigan.

Even though the Cup has been routinely dismissed in favor of the men's program since 1991, stories on this year's series went from the back page of the sports section to the front page of every newspaper in the country in less than a month. Soccer Barbies line the shelves and the entire team's now going to Disneyland. At first, I put the change down to the sporting apparel companies' need for replacement idols, since the Michael Jordan industry ran out of steam after his retirement. Judging from the lack of household names created by the WNBA, that wasn't much of a stretch.

On July 4, I took the train down to Stanford to hang out with 73,000 other rabid fans watching the U.S. Women's team's semifinal game against Brazil. I was looking for the sordid underbelly of the sport -- football hooligans or lackluster attendance, it didn't matter to me. I found myself surrounded by "lifelong" fans, as if women's soccer had been around as long as baseball. The guy sitting next to me in the stands rattled off one statistic after another like he was some kind of grizzled sportscaster. Everyone there had a great time -- and I was helpless. Even with the absence of beer, I was the team's slave just like all those screaming pre-pubescent girls lining the pitch. The women's team played a thrilling game and won, advancing to the finals against China. We all stood and cheered. It's as simple as that.

This World Cup showed that it didn't need spinmeisters and marketing weasels to be a success. The American team took on the best in the world and electrified the country with a combination of out-of-this-world ball control and larger than life characters. The puny, underachieving men's soccer team won't be able to show their faces in public until October -- US Women's coach Tom DiCicco was forced to say something nice about them just to unruffle some feathers.

By the time you read this, the din of adulation surrounding the American Women's World Cup victory will have quieted down and the team will have stopped wearing their gold medals in the shower and finally hung them up on the mantel next to the framed Time and Newsweek covers. As a result, generations will still utter their names in hushed, respectful tones and, goddammit, I can't find a reason to resent all the fuss. They deserve it.

When they pry him from the sports bar, Patrick Hughes is GettingIt's literary correspondent.

See also...
... by Patrick Hughes
... in the Scope section
... from July 27, 1999