By Sean McElroy
My Grandmother, who is ninety-three, has absolutely no reason to care about soccer. She is sharp as can be—her memory for her age is quite remarkable—and when I visit her she often asks about the various matches I am going to go see or have seen. Always, one conversation or question seems to pop up. That one time, when the United States won the World Cup, and that very good player (Mia Hamm, she insists) took off her shirt and celebrated.
It is perhaps the best known moment in the history of American soccer—and perhaps the best moment in the history of women’s sports. Brandi Chastain steps up to take the final penalty for the American women, who are a single spot-kick away from winning the World Cup. After the shot is properly buried, Chastain takes off her shirt, and the image of her celebration was seen everywhere, from the front pages of newspapers to the cover of SI.
For myself, the women’s final in 1999 (when I was but nine years old) was the first time I had ever watched a soccer game from start to finish. I remembered watching parts of World Cup matches the prior year on ABC, including the US v Germany match and the final (I remember asking my Dad who won later that day). But never had I committed to sitting down and watching 90—then 120—minutes of football.
My love with soccer would not fully take off until the 2002 World Cup run, but I can assure you there is a very strong chance that had I not seen the incredible match in 1999, I wouldn’t have been watching. As a young kid, watching your country win the biggest title in a sport you play is a remarkably impressionable thing. It does matter back home. Often times people that don’t know any better suggest that “the 99 title didn’t change the game back home,” or that “the 02 run didn’t really transform the way we view US soccer at home.” They must be looking for some sign, I suppose, that doesn’t exist. No, soccer isn’t a big three sport with the NFL, college football and Major League Baseball. No, it isn’t the NBA (though the ratings are pretty similar of late). What it is, however, is a great deal more socially acceptable. Some of that is media. But that media interest is related to more kids playing the game than ever and more people following the game abroad than ever. And that’s the legacy of Brandi Chastain and of the men in 2002. And that’s what is at stake today. A larger groundswell for soccer. A huge moment. Here’s betting these women are ready.
Don’t believe me? Then ask yourself this– young Alex Morgan– everyone’s next “it” thing in US Soccer– was my age when 1999 happened. You don’t think she was watching that game? Of course she was. And today, she might be somewhat responsible for the next Alex Morgan. That’s a pretty neat thing.
A lot of people are going to watch this match. This is the biggest title in women’s sport, and the United States and Japan—not exactly the first two nations that come to mind when one is asked to name great football nations– are about to battle it out in a World Cup final. This is one of those key moments where many, many Americans will be watching the most beautiful of games, and victory here could give soccer another little boost, another drop in the bucket to help turn America into a truly great footballing nation, with stars on the jerseys of both the men and women’s team. That’s what’s at stake—tomorrow memories could be forged which will make many young boys and girls say “I want to win a World Cup when I grow up.” And if they don’t say that—they might say—“I want to play soccer. And it’s a great game.” And one day, maybe their kid will want to win a World Cup, and as a parent, they’ll respect that.
Gender is ultimately irrelevant here—a victory tomorrow is not a triumph for American women, or a triumph of Title IX, it is a triumph of US Soccer. This is an American team who has overcome a great deal of adversity, played hard the whole way, and is 90 minutes away from winning the most important tournament in a sport—a tournament being played on European soil. Americans get, at best, a mocking grudge of respect from Europeans. But no European can deny the excellence of this American women’s team.
This team has done a hell of a job so far. They gave us a moment which can certainly match Donovan’s equalizer against Algeria. They one-upped the US Men, however, by following through in the next match and winning 3-1 over a solid French side. The United States beat a European team in a World Cup semifinal, on European soil (the match was played in the Rhineland, not too far from the French border). That in itself is an extraordinary accomplishment. And guess what? Now the whole thing gets even more tricky.
Make no mistake about it, the United States are considered huge favorites in this match. Japan has never beaten the American ladies, and I fully expect this trend to continue. As Raf has pointed out—this will be no cakewalk, the Japanese present many threats and will be quite a formidable opponent. But this is, of course, a match that the United States simply must win.
This is a social event—a collective chance to watch a World Cup final with those who have only a passing interest in our sport. Enough people will be watching the match to make Jim Rome’s head explode (women’s sports…and soccer! That’s like…the WNBA…only its already a girly sport…[Rome’s head explodes]). Hopefully Mr. Rome can find a sanctuary from what will certainly be a sports media saturation when we…should we… defeat the Japanese ladies.
For us, this is an important opportunity. Tomorrow, we must be the ambassadors of the sport. We must not only put up with the questions about the offside rule, we must even speak as to why the rule makes the sport better. I cannot explain how important I believe this is, but kind words and explanations when asked can make the difference between those casual fans’ dismissal of the sport, and turning them into lifelong fanatics. It’s a chance to show off this sport, a chance to get the common sports fan to watch soccer, just this once, and it is our job to make sure that those around us see the sport for what it is, the truly beautiful game. That’s our role, that’s our job, to help soccer grow in the United States.
This is an important moment, an important match, and maybe, just maybe, we are about to watch the United States win the World Cup. Good luck, my American sisters. The soccer fans of America are fully behind you.
Sean McElroy is a contributing writer for The Yanks Are Coming. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and he is well-aware that his name would only be more Irish is he was Seamus instead of Sean. He is a big LA Galaxy and Fulham fan, and you can follow his ramblings about these sides on Twitter at @fulhamerican.