Things got off to a disastrous start for the U.S. women's soccer team Thursday night when U.S. midfielder Brandi Chastain screwed up royally and kicked the ball into her own goal only five minutes into the quarterfinals of the Women's World Cup race.
Had her team stayed true to the characters Nike ads have tried to create for them, everyone would have kicked the ball into their own goal.
But they managed not to, and in fact came back against Germany's squad, Deutscher Fussball-Bund, also a No. 1 seed, in order to win a 3-2 victory.
The D.C. outbreak of Women's World Cup madness, held at the frustratingly confusing and onerously negotiated architectural nightmare known as Jack Kent Cooke Stadium, began at 7:07 p.m. and was broadcast live on ESPN. Though the stadium didn't sell out by any stretch, an international crowd of 54,642 filled the seats. But a plurality of the fans seemed to be, not surprisingly, American.
(This conclusion came from the fact that, while fans from other countries sing mellifluous anthems, warble spicy slang tunes and even bring instruments to create a never-ending din of tribal support, we stick to the aggressively simple "U.S.A.! U.S.A.!")
The race for the Women's World Cup has been drawing impressively dense crowds. A full 78,792 attended the opener at Giants Stadium, 65,080 came to Chicago's Soldier Field and 50,484 attended the last game in Massachusetts' Foxboro Stadium. The D.C. event was hyped for the Redskins' new arena, which regularly draws capacity crowds of 80,116, but women's soccer, like most women's sports, is still finding its audience.
Actually, organizers originally had only planned on a D.C. attendance of 41,000, and the third-tier nosebleeds were to be kept as lifeless as the surface of Venus. But in response to late pleas for tickets, part of the top deck was opened up for the 13,000 or so newcomers.
It was a revved-up and remarkably white crowd: young girls with their parents; patriotically face-painted Gen X-ers; enthusiastic revelers who had wrapped themselves, without irony, in the American flag. Many of the girls wore the No. 9 jersey of Mia Hamm, the so-called Michael Jordan of women's soccer and 1998 ESPN award winner, who grew up in northern Virginia.
Meanwhile, international visitors in town for diplomatic, academic or touristic pursuits were happy that their host country seemed to finally be joining the rest of the world in enjoying one of the best sports on earth.
But there weren't a whole lot of Americans cheering in the first half, truth be told -- not even me, and I'll root against Germany in anything.
The badly shot ball, called an "own-goal," occurred when some German players approached Chastain, 30, who kicked the ball back for goalie Briana Scurry to recover safely. But miscommunication got in the way of the plan, and Scurry ran to the sideline as Chastain kicked the ball down the middle.
The ignominy of an own-goal can't be overstated: The most notorious recent example occurred during the men's 1994 World Cup, when Colombia player Andres Escobar handed the United States a 2-1 win with such a mistake. Not long after, Escobar was murdered.
Ten or so minutes after the own-goal, U.S. forward Tiffeny Milbrett scored off a deflected boot from midfielder Michelle Akers, bringing the score to 1-1. The U.S. team continued to fire shot after shot through the rest of the first half -- seven other times in all -- but came up with goose eggs every time.
The disciplined Germans, conversely, had a much higher shooting percentage, taking only three shots on goal and scoring once. At the end of the half, Bettina Wiegmann -- the 1997 German "Footballer of the Year" -- popped one in with help from her fellow midfielder Sandra Smisek.
The score stood at 2-1 at the half. Tenacious superstar Mia Hamm hadn't been able to accomplish much of anything -- unlike in the team's first two victories, against Denmark and Nigeria, when she was given much of the credit for leading the American squad into the winner's circle. (On May 22, in a 3-0 win over Brazil, Hamm became the No. 1 all-time career goal scorer.)
In their first three games of the tournament, the American female footballers had kicked ass as well as soccer balls, outscoring their opponents by a combined total of 13-1. But this battle proved far tougher. Germany came on strong, and stayed disciplined and tenacious, while Chastain's mistake seemed to hold most of the women in a vise grip throughout the half.
The sticky D.C. summer humidity hung in the air along with the crowd's disappointment.
At the half, while I was getting a $17 hot dog, down in the U.S. women's locker room Chastain was getting supportive pats on the back from her teammates. "Sometimes that just happens," they told her.
But coach Tony Dicicco was having none of it.
"Is this where you want your dreams to end? Is this the end of it?!" he asked the 20 women.
"We needed to play smarter soccer," Dicicco said in a post-game interview. "We needed to invest more in the game."
In the huddle just before the game, Mia Hamm had asked her teammates, "What are we afraid of here? Let's go after it."
They did. Within minutes of the start of the second half, Chastain turned hero, charging right out to score -- this time in the opposing team's goal -- bringing the score back up to a tie at 2-2. Sliding onto her back, smiling up at the sky, you could see the weight of 20 dashed dreams lifted from her nimble frame -- a frame, by the way, that was recently glimpsed in the pages of the men's magazine Gear, its dainty bits covered by only a soccer ball.
Fifteen or so minutes later, coach Dicicco made a key substitution, putting in Shannon MacMillan, the star of the team's Sunday victory against Korea DPR. MacMillan, taking a corner kick upon her entry into the game, managed to get the ball to Joy Fawcett, who headed the winning goal. The team erupted with, well, Joy. A few minutes after that, it was all over.
For all the annoying security clearances and two-month-lead-time press credentials that the match required, it wasn't too difficult for me to saunter into the steel-locked bowels of the stadium, sidle up to "Nutmeg the Fox" -- the U.S. women's mascot -- and even give the First Family a shout, up close and personal.
If I had been Osama bin Laden, Al Gore might finally have a leg up on George W.
"I loved it; it was fabulous," said the president, eyeing my date enthusiastically as he shook
hands with various Women's World Cup employees. As he posed for a photo with Nutmeg, Hillary Rodham Clinton said that the game was "great, though it was a little bit of a heart-stopper. But it worked out."
Soon Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala dragged Hillary Clinton away to pose with Nutmeg.
Outside the stadium, scores of girl footballers -- from preschool to college-age -- stood waiting for their favorite American players. "It was great," said 8-year-old Lindsay Nadkari, who came down from Philadelphia with sister Lauren, 12, and cousin Amal Fallah, 16, all of whom play soccer.
"I remember when I was a kid, I used to wait outside for the men players," observed Chastain, a member of the '91 team that won the inaugural Women's World Cup match. "It's unbelievable; we've come such a long way."
The U.S. women's soccer team, which first blazed into the national consciousness with its 1996 Olympic gold medal victory against the Chinese in Athens, Ga., is -- together with the WNBA -- slowly leading the charge on the road that Title IX paved.
I made my way to the sports media pack, where international reporters were shoving their microphones under the noses of the dejected Germans. (Cue obnoxious laugh from Nelson, of "The Simpsons": HA-ha!) Defender Doris Fitschen looked down at the ground; defender Ariana Hingst stood with odd blotches covering her left leg; another German woman, who bore a strong resemblance to actor Jason Bateman, stared sullenly.
Sports reporters were still unsure of who was who, even on the U.S. team. The women's celebrity shouldn't be overemphasized; they may be big with pre-pubescents and aficionados of Nike ads, but they're not household faces yet. Which seems fine with the players, who appear likable and serious and charming and who -- unlike certain pampered zillionaires of other sports -- exude a legitimate love for the game.
The U.S. women's team now goes on to face the Brazilians, who beat the Nigerians in the quarterfinal match played immediately after the U.S. victory. The two will face off on Sunday, July 4, at Stanford Stadium in Palo Alto, Calif. The finals will be played Saturday afternoon, July 10, at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif.