Kickin' it

Mia Hamm's soccer prowess has finally launched women's sports into the mainstream. But is she ready for icon status?

Published June 23, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

By the 17th minute of last Saturday's Women's World Cup opener, the 78,972 fans at Giants Stadium were growing restless. Pre-game festivities that included a taped greeting from the first lady and a performance by platinum-selling boy toys N' Synch were long forgotten. Attention and some consternation now focused squarely on the match at hand: the United States vs. Denmark.

The Americans were floundering. They looked tentative, misplaying several easy passes and nearly surrendering a goal to the Danes.

Then suddenly an opportunity arrived. A ball was played in the air deep to the right side of Denmark's penalty box. With her back to the goal, striker Mia Hamm brought it down with her foot, deftly turned inward past a defender and rocketed the first goal of the tournament high into the net.

Giants Stadium went berserk. Hamm high-step sprinted in utter ecstasy 50 yards back to her own half of the field, screaming and wildly pumping her fists until finally she was mauled by overjoyed teammates.

It was as raw an expression of joy as you will see in sports. But a palpable sense of relief was there as well. After enduring months of media appearances to promote everything from a sports drink to a soccer Barbie doll to the World Cup itself, Mia Hamm had returned to what she loves most: playing the game.

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Until recently, you could be forgiven for having no idea who Mia Hamm is.

But over the last couple months, the women's soccer star has graced the front page of the New York Times, been a guest on "Good Morning America" and karate-flipped Michael Jordan in Gatorade TV ads. She has released an autobiography and christened an enormous new office building named in her honor at Nike's corporate campus in Oregon. And she has broken the record for the most career international goals ever scored by any soccer player, woman or man: 110 as of last Saturday.

Hamm is just 27, but the media have already conferred upon her the status of living legend. By tournament's end, she could be more recognizable than any American man ever to play soccer, including (what's-his-name?) the guy with long red hair and goofy goatee (Alexi Lalas). Moreover, she could become the most recognizable woman athlete on Earth.

As the largest team sporting event for females ever held, the Women's World Cup may prove a watershed for women's sports in the U.S. and worldwide. And as the fresh face that media and corporate sponsors have chosen to personify the event, Hamm has challenges far beyond the soccer field. Everyone -- from Nike executives to 13-year-old daughters of soccer moms -- will be counting on her to lead the United States to victory and score plenty of goals along the way.

As soccer's best female player, Hamm is being asked to expand the game's appeal to millions of Americans, many of whom enjoy watching their kids play each Sunday but would never consider attending a professional match. There is even talk of creating a women's professional league in the United States, contingent on the success of the Women's World Cup.

Beyond soccer, Hamm has been thrust into the role of ambassador for all female team sports. As the most scrutinized player in this summer's tournament, she is under intense pressure to prove that female athletes are every bit as entertaining to watch as men -- not just in Olympic gymnasiums or ice rinks, but in the great coliseums such as Giants Stadium.

It's a tall order for a private and intense young woman who has happily toiled in relative obscurity for years. But, as her opponents have repeatedly learned, Mia Hamm should never be underestimated.

There's a reason why your daughter, your sister, your niece, your granddaughter or your mother loves to play soccer.

Unlike virtually any other team sport, soccer embraces players of all shapes and skill sets. For those fleet of foot, the sport offers the position of striker. Slower, stronger athletes can be put to work at the back as defenders. Those with titanium lungs and exceptional vision are best in the midfield. Nerves of steel and hands of leather are prerequisites for the role of goalkeeper.

With relatively few rules and a clock that never stops, "the beautiful game" thrives on individuality and expression, its field offering acres of canvas upon which masterpieces can be created by players of various styles.

To non-soccer fanatics, that may sound like hyperbole. But there can be little doubt that the game served as an outlet of expression for a gangly 13-year-old from north Texas named Mia Hamm. At the awkward arrival of adolescence, soccer was a refuge for the quiet teenager.

Her recently published "Go for the Goal: A Champion's Guide to Winning in Soccer and Life" consists of memoirs, words of advice to young female athletes and a regimen of soccer training drills. Hamm describes how as a teen she would spend hours alone on the practice field honing her skills long after others had called it a day. Amid the media maelstrom of recent weeks, Hamm says she still finds "a haven and security inside the lines." She recently told ESPN, "the field is where I express myself."

By age 15, Hamm had been competing on boys teams for years, even leading them in scoring at times. Already focused on the long term, she dreamed of playing for the University of North Carolina's legendary Tar Heels, and then landing a spot on the U.S. Women's National Team. Both goals were achieved in short, but reverse order. That year, she became the youngest woman ever to play for the United States and traveled with the team to Taiwan. A couple of seasons later, she set off for Chapel Hill to join the Tar Heels.

At the time, both squads were led by coach Anson Dorrance, whom Hamm calls "the driving force behind my growth as a person and a player." Known for his intense and even controversial motivational tactics, Dorrance took her aside several months after she had joined the national team. In her memoirs, Hamm recalls him saying, "You can become the best soccer player in the world." Whether these words were sincere or merely meant to bolster the confidence of a young player coming into her own, they proved prophetic.

Like many female athletes who came of age in the 1980s, Hamm had few female predecessors in her sport on which to model her game. Not surprisingly, men served as her primary athletic mentors. Years before she met Dorrance, it was her older brother Garrett who served as soccer sparring partner, motivator and idol. Hamm credits him for being the single most influential person in her career.

Garrett was plagued for years by the blood disease aplastic anemia, and died of complications related to bone-marrow transplants shortly after the United States won the Olympic Gold Medal in 1996. Hamm was devastated and has since devoted herself to raising awareness of the disease through a charitable foundation that bears her name. The U.S. team has played several benefit matches to raise money for the foundation. As another tribute, every pair of the Nike soccer shoes she endorses has Garrett's initials on the bottom.

The relative lack of female soccer superstars of the past may also help explain the close-knit nature of the U.S. Women's National Team. Lacking idols to emulate and, until now, lacking public interest, its players have been forced to look inward and to one another for inspiration. Hamm is no exception. In her book, she lavishes pages of praise on teammates Kristine Lilly and Michelle Akers who are clearly her soccer heroes.

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At just 5 feet 5 inches tall, Hamm is an offensive force of nature. With an explosive first step, she blows by defenders with the ball seemingly tied to her feet on a short string. In the open field, she can be unstoppable, zigging and zagging, cutting and slashing past the opposition. Often, opponents are reduced to grabbing her jersey or jamming a foot in her wheels as she flies by.

In addition to her grass-singeing speed, Hamm possesses impeccable "touch," as it is known in soccer. Try catching a 40-yard touchdown pass with your foot and you'll understand the term. As she showed Saturday, Hamm can pull down a ball traveling through the air at high speed with her insole, settle it on the ground and pound it toward the goal, all in an instant.

Finally, Hamm has that intangible quality that defines great strikers: the ability to capitalize on even the slightest opportunity to score. Soccer matches last 90 minutes and are often decided by no more than a single goal. Moments when the ball can be deposited in the back of the net come and go in a split second, at which time the 24-foot-wide goal can seem to shrink drastically even for many experienced players.

At such moments, exceptional scorers like Hamm enter a zone where time slows and the goal beckons. On a breakaway with the goalkeeper flying toward her at top speed, Hamm can calmly chip the ball over her opponent's head into the net beyond, not just because it's a move she has practiced 1,000 times before but because of an innate belief in herself.

"Mia is a very unique person, not just an exceptional player," coach Tony DiCicco of the U.S. National Team recently told me following a pre-tournament press conference. "Because of that she's become a media darling. It has accelerated as people have learned about her as a person."

Hamm remains humble despite the hype. She uses media appearances to deflect attention from her personal achievements to those of the team. In a conference call with reporters after shattering the record for most international goals scored, Hamm described the historic play as "very reflective of our team, with lots of one-touch plays. I was fortunate to be at the end of it and knock it in." If ever there was a time to bask in personal glory, this was it. Yet Hamm declined.

Hers is not the forced modesty of a media-savvy star. It is rooted in a relentless will to win coupled with an understanding that, at its heart, soccer is a team sport. On the field, she is a vocal and dominant competitor. Off the field, you get the sense that she would prefer to fade into the woodwork of the U.S. squad, to just be an athlete.

But the sport's rising popularity and her status as an idol to girls and women across the country has made that impossible. "She's kind of become an entertainment icon," said DiCicco. "I think it's a role that she embraces because she knows it's a job the team and the sport need."

Is DiCicco concerned that the hoopla surrounding the tournament will distract Hamm from the task at hand? "I'm not sure it has helped her," he admits, laughing a little nervously. He acknowledges that in the past he has seen a busy media schedule "hinder her because of the demands physically" but contends that this recent, heavier spate of attention does not affect her mental discipline.

Still, Hamm has not shown herself to be immune from the effects of pressure. As World Cup media attention ratcheted up earlier this year, she endured an eight-game goal drought -- an eternity for a player who, on average, has scored in two out of every three games she has played.

Furthermore, she has never been known as a big-game overachiever. Her play throughout the last Women's World Cup in 1995 could hardly have been described as dominant. In a significant setback to American women's soccer, the United States was eliminated from the tournament that year by Norway, which went on to win the championship.

With her extraordinary intensity, Hamm can be her own worst enemy. She can allow small errors in her game to blossom into larger ones by being overly critical of herself. There is concern that the heightened attention of the past few months might compound that tendency.

Saturday's victory for the Americans offered a storybook kickoff to the Women's World Cup. But whether that momentum will carry forward and allow them to win the tournament remains to be seen. The Norwegians still look strong, and just a few months ago the Chinese, another possible contender, beat the United States 2-1 in a warm-up at the Meadowlands.

Inevitably, success or failure will depend on the collective effort of all 20 young women on the U.S. team. But, fair or not, Hamm will suffer the lion's share of the blame should the team fall short of its goals. Whether she flourishes or flounders in the glare of the media spotlight promises to be one of the great subplots of World Cup '99. If last Saturday's game is any indication, she should be more than up to the task.

By Ethan Zindler

Ethan Zindler is a New York writer/photographer who has covered soccer for a variety of publications. Last summer, he spent five weeks in France at the men's World Cup writing dispatches for Salon's Wanderlust section.

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