...through the perilous fight....
...O'er the ramparts we watch'd....
December 20, 1999
...were so gallantly streaming?...
"You feelin' all right?"
...And the rocket's red glare....
"Akers, will you cut me a break?"
...the bombs bursting in air....
"Good Lord, Foudy."
...Gave proof through the night....
"It was that lunch!"
...that our flag was still there....
"Yeah, I'll say."
This indelicate conversation between Michelle Akers and Julie
Foudy occurred at 12:55 p.m., PDT, on Saturday, July 10, 1999,
at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena while Hanson sang the national
anthem. Every bit of dialogue, like every ticket stub and every
penalty kick connected to that time and place, has now assumed a
heightened importance. It was on July 10 that the U.S. women's
soccer team faced China for the championship of the third
Women's World Cup, the first one played in the U.S. At the Rose
Bowl, the most storied football stadium in the country, a body
filled every seat. The announced crowd was 90,185, the largest
ever to see a women's sporting event. Today, five months later,
a million people will swear to you that they were there.
It was the most significant day in the history of women's
sports, bearing the fruit of the passage of Title IX in 1972 and
surpassing by a long shot that burn-your-bra night in '73 when
Billie Jean King beat Bobby Riggs, the late goofball showman, in
a made-for-TV tennis spectacle at the Houston Astrodome. That
night's drama, of course, required the services of a man. The
three-act play performed at the Rose Bowl--the game, the
overtime, the shootout--required nothing but women, 40 of them
(44 if you want to include the match's four officials). In the
final summer of the 20th century, the era of the woman in sports
You know what happened. Neither team could score a goal in the
90 minutes of regulation play. Neither team could score in the
two 15-minute periods of sudden-death overtime. China converted
four of its five penalty kicks. Briana Scurry, the U.S.
goalkeeper, stopped the third of China's bullets from 12 yards
out by doing what every NBA forward does under the boards,
stretching the rules as much as possible without getting caught.
The U.S. scored on each of its five attempts, the last of which
came off the golden left foot of defender Brandi Chastain, who,
in her shirtless postkick exuberance, revealed that the rest of
her is golden too. During all this madness--120 minutes in which
no goals were scored, followed by 10 furious minutes in which
nine balls found the back of the net--toes across the nation
were curled like Palmer-method q's taught in grammar school.
The Women's World Cup was competition at its most vibrant, and
the final took your breath away. It fused two often ignored
elements of American sports, women and soccer, into one
transformative moment, and held a nation in thrall. What will
forever be remembered about the match at the Rose Bowl is the
intensity and spirit with which the American and Chinese women
played. The U.S. team, with its spellbinding victory, reminded
us of the highest purpose of sport: to inspire. Akers and Foudy
and Scurry and Chastain and their 16 teammates, forwards Mia
Hamm, Tiffeny Milbrett, Cindy Parlow, Shannon MacMillan and
Danielle Fotopoulos; midfielders Kristine Lilly, Tisha Venturini
and Tiffany Roberts; defenders Carla Overbeck, Joy Fawcett, Kate
Sobrero, Sara Whalen, Lorrie Fair and Christie Pearce; and
goalkeepers Saskia Webber and Tracy Ducar--they are SPORTS
ILLUSTRATED'S Sportswomen of the Year for 1999.
A special mention must go to the U.S. women's coach, Tony
DiCicco, who ran the team marvelously during the World Cup and
for the five years preceding it. We leave off the big fella
intentionally, albeit reluctantly. We want to celebrate the
players--for the memorable way they performed on the field, for
the engaging way they talked to fans and reporters, for the
fierce way they practiced, for the casual way they hung out in
airports and hotel lobbies, for the purposeful way they huddled,
pregame, midgame, postgame. And while we salute the win at the
Rose Bowl and the five preceding victories that gave the U.S.
its spot in the title game, we recall that this team was 14
years in the making, that its longest tentacles--symbolized by
the curly, flowing mane of Akers, the 33-year-old defensive
midfielder who has been on the team since its inception--reach
back to the '85 Olympic Sports Festival in Baton Rouge, where
the original roster was filled.
Given how momentous the three-week, 16-team, 32-match tournament
turned out to be, with 658,167 fans attending and 40 million
Americans watching the final on TV, it is no wonder that
Foudy--or Loudy Foudy, as the 28-year-old midfielder is called,
because her every utterance is delivered as if it should end
with an exclamation mark--had a queasy stomach before facing
China. Even Akers, scanning the Rose Bowl for her father, Bob,
before the game, could hardly believe her eyes. She was the
oldest U.S. team member, and she recalled the early years, when
players received $10 a day in meal money and carried their own
bags and her dad was a cinch to find in the tiny crowds.
Everything had changed. The perimeter of the Rose Bowl field was
lined with ads for, among others, Fuji film, MasterCard,
Coca-Cola, Bud Light. When your sport can sell Bud Light, Akers
thought to herself, you're big-time.
The money wasn't reaching the players, not in any significant
way. For Akers and her teammates money was not a preoccupation.
(Can you imagine?) Akers had never earned as much as $200,000 in
a year--endorsements included--and most of her teammates had
never made half that. For the moment they found satisfaction in
knowing that they were among the world's elite athletes, and
that added immeasurably to their appeal.
Akers thinks back on the inaugural team with a certain
embarrassment. She was a sophomore at Central Florida when she
was named to it. The first U.S. players faced teams from
countries where soccer is an integral part of the culture:
Denmark, England, Italy. The savvy Europeans elbowed the U.S.
players, pulled their shirts, spat at them. It was the Americans
who drew yellow cards, red ones, lost. But they also learned,
fast. Entering the World Cup title game, they had a record of 64
wins, 33 losses and 13 ties.
Four F-18s flew over the Rose Bowl. The crowd roared. The game
began. In the eighth minute, the U.S. had a chance to take the
lead. Hamm, the most prolific scorer in women's soccer history,
sent a hooking free kick in the direction of China's goal. Out
of nowhere Akers came bounding into the play and attempted to
get her right foot on the ball. She got just enough of it to
send it sailing out-of-bounds.
It was a tough chance, but Akers's instinct for scoring was not
what it had once been. "Michelle was Mia before there was a
Mia," DiCicco often said to fans and sportswriters who were new
to the sport. From 1990 to '96 Akers was the team's striker, and
until 1998 she was its alltime leading scorer. But while her
intensity had only increased, her advancing age, her 13 knee
surgeries and her eight-year battle with chronic fatigue
syndrome had conspired to slow her down. For the '96 Olympics,
Akers moved to midfield, and Hamm took over Akers's role as the
main offensive force. By the time the World Cup started, Hamm's
goal total stood at 112; Akers's, at 102.
The two women are not particularly close. Who would expect them
to be? Did Joe DiMaggio befriend Mickey Mantle when the Mick
replaced him as the New York Yankees' centerfielder? But Akers,
a born charger, and Hamm, who is far more demure off the field,
do have an abiding respect for each other. In her book, Go for
the Goal, Hamm writes, "I think the best goal scorer ever to
play our game is Michelle Akers." (That a 27-year-old American
female soccer player now has her book prominently displayed in
nearly every mall bookstore in the country would have been, just
a few years ago, as improbable as the sellout at the Rose Bowl.)
Akers calls Lilly the finest all-around player she has ever seen
but says that "Mia is the greatest offensive player. She can
continue to be for a long, long time if she just plays with the
confidence she should have." This is how the U.S. team members
are, constantly building one another up, but with candor, not
You shouldn't get the idea that the players are always nice to
each other. They're just like the members of any male team
you've ever been around or read about. Off the field, endless
needling. On the field, continual berating, all in the interest
of winning. Late in their quarterfinal match, against Germany,
the Americans held a 3-2 lead, and Akers was playing like a
19-year-old kid, which was not a good thing. She was hell-bent
on having her team get another goal, and if she scored it
herself, well, that would be just fine. But a fourth goal was
not the U.S. team's highest priority. At least it shouldn't have
"We're up a goal, Akers, we're up a goal!" Lilly screamed.
"What's your point?" Akers shouted back.
"Stay deep!" Lilly yelled. "Stay home!"
Akers realized how correct Lilly was. Allowing the tying goal
could have proved a disaster. Immediately, Akers shifted gears
and focused on defending. From that point on the score in the
game did not change. The Americans were headed for the
semifinal, in which they defeated Brazil 2-0 at Stanford, in
front of 73,123 people. In that match, Akers scored the
insurance goal on a penalty kick in the 80th minute.
The World Cup finalists knew they would never see anything like
five goals scored. The defenses and the goalkeepers on both
teams were simply too good. The prospect of a 1-0 game created a
feeling of on-field intensity that matched the frenzy in the
stands. The early pace was unrelenting, and after 20 minutes
Akers was exhausted. In fact she'd been tired before the game
began. This was not a function of her fitness, which is
exemplary. It was a function of her chronic fatigue, which saps
her energy at the cruelest times. Before the World Cup final,
the team was staying at the Doubletree Hotel in downtown
Pasadena, two to a room. The players bunked up not to save money
but to create camaraderie. Because of her illness, however,
Akers needed a single room, never knowing when she would be
overwhelmed with sleepiness or when she would suffer from a bout
of sweat-through-the-sheets insomnia.
She used her time alone to write in her journal. Before leaving
her hotel room for the Rose Bowl, Akers wrote, "Who will I be
when I return to this room after the game and look into the
mirror? I don't know. I think the key is I'm willing to put
myself on the line to find out." As the match wore on, Akers had
the feeling that with every minute she was pushing her body
closer to the breaking point. She didn't care. All she wanted to
do was help her team win. In the catacombs of her mind, there
was a frantic search for energizing thoughts. She was reaching
Akers watched sweeper Overbeck, the captain of the team, scamper
after a loose ball. A memory flashed through Akers's mind. The
image was from a plane ride back to the U.S. from Portugal last
March. The team was exhausted, and all the players relaxed or
slept except Overbeck. Throughout the long flight she tended to
her son, Jackson, then 1 1/2, who spent most of the trip
spitting up on his mother. Overbeck never complained. Akers
thought, Carla is a hero to her fans and a hero to her son, who
doesn't know a soccer ball from the ball on a clown's nose. The
thought inspired Akers. She pressed on.
Planes are often the settings for stories about the U.S. team,
mostly because the players travel so much. If you look at the
year-by-year records, you see the team playing in Italy, China,
Taiwan, Canada, Haiti, Portugal, Brazil. In '91 the first
Women's World Cup was played, in China. Thanksgiving overlapped
with the tournament. Do you think there was much American
coverage of that tournament? There was not. Akers was flying
back to the U.S. when she had the following conversation with a
white-haired American woman.
Lady on plane: What were you doing in China?
Akers: Playing in the first Women's World Cup.
Lady on plane: How'd you do?
Akers: We won!
Lady on plane: Oh, that's nice.
Things were a little different at the 1996 Games in Atlanta,
when women's soccer was an Olympic medal sport for the first
time. The championship match was played down the road in Athens,
and 76,481 people came out to watch the gold medal match, which
turned out to be a preview of the '99 World Cup final, China
versus the U.S. The U.S. won, 2-1.
But NBC showed only snippets of the game, and there was no
jubilant national reaction. It was as if the country were not
ready to embrace women's soccer. The women basketball players,
also gold medal winners, were everywhere. A women's professional
basketball league was about to start, and the sport was
benefiting from an extensive public relations push. There was no
professional women's soccer league. (One was then in the
planning stages, where it still remains.) There was nowhere,
really, for fans of women's soccer to go. The next big event
would be in the summer of 1999. A devoted group of fans spent
three years waiting for the Cup. By July 10 they were frothing
at the mouth--and most of America had joined them.
For the entire second half Akers was delirious. She was
oblivious to the crowd noise. The only thing she was aware of
was the pounding in her head and the words going through it with
every step she took: Only 20 more minutes. Don't quit. Only 19
more minutes. Track that ball. Don't look at the clock. Win this
head ball. Only 16 more minutes. Only 15 more minutes. Win this
tackle. Get lost in the game. Don't quit. Don't quit. Do not quit.
For Akers the end finally came as the game--the regulation part
of it, anyway--was in its waning moments. The Chinese had a
corner kick. Akers went to stop it with her head. Scurry went to
punch it out with her right fist. Akers's head got a piece of
the ball, and Scurry's fist got a piece of Akers's head. Akers
went tumbling to the ground. Her World Cup career was over. The
clock ran out and the game was still scoreless and the ultimate
soccer warrior, one of the best to play the game, needed help
getting off the field. She was led to the trauma room, where she
was hooked up to two intravenous lines and an oxygen tank. All
through the 30-minute overtime Akers was unable to focus on the
game on TV. She was, she says, loony.
With Akers out, DiCicco sent in one of his youngest players,
Whalen, 23, who was shaking like a leaf. Akers knows what it's
like to play your first minute in your first World Cup final.
All you're trying to do, she says, is not make a mistake. That's
easier than it sounds. On her first touch Whalen sent the ball
out-of-bounds, not because of pressure from China but because of
pressure from the setting: a World Cup final, in front of a home
crowd, in a scoreless overtime, noise everywhere. Deep down,
Whalen had every reason to be confident. Despite her
inexperience she was playing because DiCicco thought she was
already an immense soccer talent, at the vanguard of the next
generation of U.S. players poised to replace the pioneers who
are their role models, whose pictures they had plastered on
their bedroom walls. Akers herself is not so sure. She wonders
if Whalen is too well-adjusted to become a world-beater. Whalen
has a life. To become a Michelle Akers, Michelle Akers will tell
you, your zeal for soccer has to be monomaniacal.
Whalen settled down, and the overtime ended. The shootout began.
The U.S. team's medical people propped up Akers so she could
watch. Everything was fuzzy for her when Scurry--or Hair, as
Akers calls her, and she calls Akers, for their abundant
tresses--made her save. By the time Chastain was setting the
ball for her penalty kick, Akers's eyes were riveted to the
tube. When the kick went in, the trauma room erupted. Akers,
with help, pulled the IVs out of her arms and headed out to the
field to celebrate with her teammates and see if she could
somehow find her father in the erupting Rose Bowl stands. Her
body was dead. The rest of her had never felt more alive.
In the weeks and months since that game Akers has found herself
talking often about Scurry and Chastain. People want to know if
Scurry cheated by taking a step or two forward before each of
the Chinese penalty kicks. Clearly Scurry had violated the
letter of the rule, which prohibits forward movements before the
ball is kicked. In Akers's opinion, though, that does not
constitute an ethical lapse. "Part of being a keeper is playing
the referee, just like the defense does in any team sport,"
Akers says. "That's just what Hair was doing. The keeper has to
do everything she can to stop the ball. It's the referee's job
to make sure she's doing it right. And if the shoe were on the
other foot, if the Chinese had stopped one of our penalty kicks
by moving forward, I guarantee you we would have said, 'Hey, she
cheated.' Every last one of us." In the world of men's sports
this is known as rallying behind your guy. In women's sports it
may now be called the same thing.
Then there's Chastain and her nominal disrobing. The way her
celebration has been talked about, you would have thought she
was a streaker. Her little flash dance has been shown again and
again, on Letterman, on ESPN, everywhere. As a conversation
topic it has amazing legs. "People should get over it," Akers
says. "The men do it all the time, and you don't think twice
about it. It was just something she did spontaneously. I thought
it was great." Anyway, to her teammates, Chastain's most
memorable moment--after, of course, the winning penalty kick in
the title game--involves the goal she scored against her own
team. She booted it in during the quarterfinal win over Germany.
Chastain was attempting to pass to Scurry, thinking the
goalkeeper was at her normal workstation. She wasn't, and the
ball rolled softly into the U.S. net. The memorable part was not
so much the goal; own goals happen from time to time. The
memorable part came in a team meeting a few days afterward, in
which DiCicco showed the shot over and over. The first time it
was funny. The second time it was serious. After a while damage
was being done. The team could feel Chastain's discomfort. The
players said to the coach, "O.K., Tony, we got the point. Thank
you!" After the meeting the players gathered around Chastain. It
was a bonding moment. The team had many such moments. That's why
they played the way they did.
Akers's days on the national team are numbered. She plans to
retire after the Olympics next year in Sydney. (She would
consider playing in a professional league, if the time
commitment were not all-consuming.) When the national team
barnstormed the country in October and November, Akers didn't
join it. She accepted no endorsement offers before the World Cup
and few since, because she knows endorsements, like barnstorming
tours, drain her time and her energy, and she cannot put a price
tag on those things. Last month she made a three-hour drive, in
her red Jeep Cherokee with 41,000 miles on it, from her modest
rented home in a little development in Lake Mary, Fla., to a
sprawling church in Tampa, where she spoke to a couple of
hundred kids who play in a church soccer league. "There's a guy
in the Bible named Paul, and he's a pretty studly dude," she
told the kids before dipping in for a read. Spreading the word
about her game and her God, those are the things that are
important to her. When she was done, the director of the soccer
league pointed to Akers and said to the crowd, "Guys and girls,
can I say one thing? That's a hero." Akers didn't look
embarrassed at all. She looked proud. She's a role model, on a
team of role models.
The morning after the title game at the Rose Bowl, Akers woke up
in her single hotel room in Pasadena. The room was a mess and
she was a mess, but she felt compelled to write something down.
She got out her journal and made a short entry. She wrote, "I
looked in the mirror last night and saw the weary face of a
battleworn soldier-warrior. But the eyes said it all. Exhausted,
but fulfilled, satisfied. We did it."
Amen. A beautiful way to end a century of sport.
With its spellbinding victory, the U.S. reminded us of the
highest purpose of sport: to inspire.
"I looked in the mirror and saw the face of a battleworn
soldier-warrior," Akers wrote after the final.