BELO HORIZONTE, Brazil — There was a time, long before they booed her mercilessly on Wednesday, that Brazilians loved Hope Solo. Before the U.S. played Brazil in World Cup 2011, Solo was finishing an interview with me in a German hotel lobby when several Brazilian journalists came running toward her.
One guy from a top Brazilian TV network came and asked Solo if she would look into the camera and “send a kiss” on video to a male sports anchor back home who had become infatuated with her. “Manda um beijo,” Solo said with a smile, not just once but three times as the guy searched for the perfect take.
Well, it’s fair to say the Brazilians at the Estádio Mineirão weren’t so infatuated with Solo during the U.S.’s clinical 2–0 win against New Zealand in its Olympic opener on Wednesday. A rain of boos came from the crowd every time Solo touched the ball. By the end of the game, they would chant “ZIKA!” when Solo delivered a goal kick.
What on earth happened here? It all goes back to a photo that Solo posted on Twitter and Instagram on July 21 in which she’s wearing an elaborate mosquito-net headgear along with a face scarf and carrying a large bottle of high-grade insect repellent.
The photograph apparently didn’t go over well with Brazilians, who covered it extensively in the local media. Even though Solo apologized to the media here earlier this week and said she hadn’t had any issues with mosquitoes, the crowd let her have it anyway. The boos grew louder and louder as the game went on.
After the game, Solo said she had no idea on the field that the boos were about her photograph. In fact, she said the U.S. players had been told that the goal-kick chant was a homophobic slur that gets shouted at men’s games in Brazil. (For what it’s worth, I thought I heard “Zika” being chanted.)
“I was pretty focused on the game,” said Solo, who had her world record 102nd clean sheet in international play. “What goes on around me in the stadium, honestly it doesn’t matter. I’m glad the fans had fun, and if they had fun at my expense more power to them.”
For her part, U.S. coach Jill Ellis was bummed out that the talk wasn’t more about her team’s style of play impressing a Brazilian public that loves the game as much as the U.S. players do.
“We’re so excited to be here, because Brazilians appreciate football,” Ellis said to a Brazilian journalist who asked her about the chants at Solo. “That’s something that hopefully they’ll put behind them and realize Hope has apologized to the Brazilian people. Sometimes mistakes are made. We are used to getting booed in other countries, so that part of it isn’t foreign. But I hope the Brazilian people appreciate what we’re trying to do with the ball and move past that.”
The U.S. did produce some moments that brought ooohs and aaahs from the Brazilian fans. During the first half, the acceleration of 18-year-old winger Mallory Pugh on the ball ratcheted up the volume in the stadium nearly every time she got a touch. So did the silky moves of midfielder Tobin Heath, who grew up idolizing the Brazilian legend Ronaldinho so much that she honed his elástico move to perfection.
As Heath herself said after the game, “Being here in Brazil, I think it’s a very special place to play as a football player.” The U.S. players are legitimately psyched to play in some of the cathedrals of Brazilian soccer, from the Mineirão here to the World Cup stadiums in Manaus and Brasília to potentially the gold medal game at the legendary Maracanã in Rio de Janeiro.
Solo, too, appreciates good futebol as much as any Brazilian fan, and she’s encouraged by the steps the U.S. has made over the past year to show a higher level of soccer IQ and inventiveness on the field.
Will the Brazilian boos for Solo continue as the Olympics progress? Maybe. On the one hand, if that happens it would only spice up any rivalry that takes place between the U.S. and Brazilian teams, especially if they were to meet in a big game here. On the other hand, it would be a bit of a bummer if the boos dominate the discussion.
Oftentimes, what seems like a significant story on the first day of Olympic soccer—when no other sports are happening at the Games—ends up petering out quickly. Four years ago, that story was North Korea refusing to play at first when organizers showed a South Korean flag on the scoreboard at the opening game. That was a bad mistake, of course, but then the North Koreans decided to play and the story died soon thereafter.
My sense is this story might too.
• The U.S.’s showdown Saturday with France will almost certainly determine who wins the group and gets an easier route through the knockout rounds. France thrashed Colombia 4–0 and is in first place ahead of the U.S. for now based on goal difference.
• When asked to explain her choice to start Allie Long over Lindsey Horan and Pugh over Crystal Dunn, this is what Ellis said:
“I think we’ve got wonderful choices. We have a saying: Mission Matters Most. It’s one game at a time. We have told them, because we’ll need all of them. In terms of getting [Morgan Brian] some time in the 8 position, I decided to play Allie [Long] at the 6. She’s had some experience with us, and I think she’s done well.”
“Then between Mallory and Crystal, both of them I know are going to be playing a lot of minutes. It’s balancing that, because they’ve got high engines and we want to make sure they get some rest. Today either one was going to start. A lot of the talk in our locker room as far as the staff [is concerned] is how we finish a game. So bringing Crystal in to terrorize that right side keeps a team at bay.”
• Pugh has a “right ankle knock” per a U.S. spokesperson and was set to be evaluated back at the team hotel. Pugh came out of the game in the 51st minute for Dunn as a precaution. The injury is not thought to be serious, and she may not miss any time.