...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 finally arrived.
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 fulsome praise.
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 been.
"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 deep.
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.