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Gamesmanship of Olympics set aside for respect in women's final

LONDON -- As best as I can tell, you can divide soccer fans -- sports fans, really -- into two camps. There are those who are entertained by the tooth-and-nail struggle, the public Darwinism of winning by any means possible, even (and especially) if that includes gamesmanship like slyly tugging a jersey on a set-piece or embellishing on the slightest contact in the box. For these fans, antics and theatrics only add to the spectacle. Just win, baby.

Then there are those who are entertained by the purity of competition. In soccer terms, that means all-out effort, inspiring team play and the absence of dives, cheap shots and any other type of unsportsmanlike behavior.

When the U.S. women's soccer team meets Japan in Olympic gold-medal game on Thursday (2:45 p.m. ET, NBCSN), the Purity Fans will finally get their day after a women's Olympic tournament that has been defined in large part by the Just Win Baby Fans.

Think about it. In these Olympics we have seen Colombia's Lady Andrade sucker-punch the U.S.'s Abby Wambach in the face away from the ball (drawing a two-game suspension). We have seen Canada's Melissa Tancredi stomp on the head of the U.S.'s Carli Lloyd (drawing no punishment whatsoever). We have seen Japan coach Norio Sasaki admit that he told his team not to score in its last group game, the better to finish second in the group and avoid having to travel for its next match.

We have seen Canada coach John Herdman try to influence the officiating (and get in the heads of the U.S.) by announcing the day before the game that the Americans perpetrate "highly illegal" tactics on set-pieces. And, not least, we have seen Wambach stand next to the referee and count down the seconds the Canadian goalkeeper was holding the ball, persuading said ref to call a game-changing infraction that you basically never see in an elite-level match.

Let's be clear: We see these things in a lot of sports. For many fans, they're a big reason they watch the games with such passion, and women's soccer is only now starting to join the club. That's not to say we haven't witnessed some memorable, shall we say, Olympian moments here: The U.S.'s 4-3 extra-time win over Canada in the semifinals was an instant classic for the sport, filled with seven goals, three U.S. comebacks and a last-second winner, even if much of the postgame discussion has focused on various controversies.

But the final against Japan will be for the Purity Fans. That's how the U.S. women's soccer team won over much of America in the first place back in the 1990s, always playing hard, always going for the win (and, it should be said, almost always winning), while also showing a unity and collective charisma.

All of which is to say that if Japanese world player of the year Homare Sawa stomps on Wambach's head on purpose, I will eat my shoe. It's just not going to happen.

"Our teams respect each other so much that I can almost guarantee none of that will happen tomorrow," said Wambach on Wednesday. "Teams use [antics and mind games] as tactics because they may not technically and tactically be better than us, and can maybe in their opinion even the playing field. The Japanese team is so good and we are so good that it's about the soccer. And that's what's going to be so awesome about [Thursday] night. You're going to watch some beautiful soccer happen. You're going to see some amazing goals, and hopefully people will become legends."

How much mutual respect is there between the U.S. and Japan? So much that there were genuinely warm hugs and a group picture with the two teams between their press conferences at the Olympic press center on Wednesday. So much that U.S. goalie Hope Solo, who proudly states she isn't friends with players on opposing teams, makes an exception for her pal, Japan captain Aya Miyama. So much that U.S. midfielder Megan Rapinoe says the Japanese players say "Sorry! Sorry!" after they commit fouls on the field.

When Wambach bumped into Sawa at the Olympic Village on Tuesday, they embraced and shared a mutual joy that both teams had made the final.

Yet players from both teams emphasized on Wednesday how important it is to win the gold medal. For Japan, the final provides the chance to prove beyond the shadow of a doubt that last year's World Cup crown wasn't some fluky result. (To some degree, reaching the final already has.) For the U.S., there is the ultimate opportunity for redemption after the crushing penalty-kicks defeat to Japan in the World Cup final -- a game the U.S. led twice.

The U.S. players and coaches had different ways of processing the toughest loss of their careers. Wambach got back to work, doing public appearances and showing that you could still be gallant in the face of defeat. Alex Morgan played in a WPS game three days after the final. Coach Pia Sundhage spent time reflecting at her Swedish vacation house. And Lloyd sought refuge, in time, on her beloved Jersey Shore.

For all of the U.S. players, the ideal finale for the Olympics was the same: To reach the gold-medal game against Japan and to win it. The chance to exact revenge in a world championship final so soon after losing a world championship final doesn't come around very often. And so you will see a clean, well-played game on Thursday, with the Japanese employing their short-passing attack and the U.S. seeking to maximize its talented forward tandem of Wambach and Morgan. In short, you will see two teams that have full respect for each other, with no desire to resort to some of the Hunger Games tactics we've seen in this Olympic tournament.

There's entertainment in that, too -- and the conditions, potentially, for another historic U.S. women's soccer game.

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