By Eric Beard of A Football Report
Editor’s Note: This is another feature in our USWNT World Cup 2011 Send-Off series, and the first piece written by a writer from another excellent football website. We are very grateful to Eric and A Football Report for their participation.
The aroma of American masculinity, ahem, I mean America’s greatest pastime filled the lungs of those lucky few who had traveled the arduous distance into the middle of nowhere. It smelled better than you would think, if you enjoy your fair share of Cracker Jacks, that is. The summer was at its peak, Independence Day had come and gone, and July was ready to thrash its rampant rays on unsuspecting middle-aged white men. Blackbird Bay seized control over the heat as everyone was treated to a mild July afternoon. I found myself in a place that, perhaps stereotypically and even categorically, fell alongside Disneyland as a trip young American boys would go on.
I was celebrating my dad’s 40th birthday with my family and a few close friends. Though there were statues of Babe Ruth and Honus Wagner to be found around the town, this day was different. Sure, I was sporting my 1997 Florida Marlins World Series Champs shirt while my dad had on his new customized Cleveland Indians jersey with his name and the number 40 on the back*, baseball was relegated to the back page of my sporting priorities.
But there I was, visiting Cooperstown, New York for the Baseball Hall of Fame, hoping to find a way to convince my parents to stop at a bar or head back to the hotel to see the world’s game played by the best women in the world.
- * = after the age of 30, referencing how old someone is in a gift, unless they’re close to 100, is not highly appreciated.
On any other afternoon I would have been content throwing my arm out in endless attempts to hit 50 MPH on the radar gun. But not today, not July 10th, 1999. The sporting context changed; the idea remained steadfast. Today, the women of the United States would battle the women of China. This match was about history, about rivalry, about being the best. This final, in essence, encapsulated the American spirit.
But let’s go a few rungs down the intellectual ladder. In the summer of 1999, I was still waiting for my tenth birthday and you could have told me ‘encapsulated’ was a member of the Mexican national team. Despite that fact, I knew this match, this team, and those women were something special. I wasn’t alone. The 90,000+ that showed up that afternoon at the Rose Bowl knew it and the millions of Americans that tuned in to see the cup final knew it too, with or without a clear understanding of the sport.
The match was not extraordinary, echoing the Rose Bowl’s memories of the 1990 World Cup final that ended with Roberto Baggio dismay. But the ambiance that fell upon the shoulders of coach Tony DiCicco was that of an event in a coliseum. Not the coliseum in Southern California either; rather, you know, the one sitting comfortably in the Mediterranean.
The passion, the intensity, the poise in the eyes of members like Kristine Lilly and Mia Hamm matched and maybe even transcended that of the finest male athletes that America had come to heroicize. Hamm could stand toe to toe with Michael Jordan in a Gatorade advert without any questions of whether her sport or her athleticism or her work ethic deserved to be there. Lebron James can barely get away with that sort of stature now, regardless of what Scottie Pippen tells you.
These warriors sparked a further appreciation for the game I had played since I was three, but more than that, as a 9-year-old, I was able to intelligibly learn the game from watching women’s football, which was something the men’s game on television had not truly allowed me to do. The tempo of women’s football is slower than the men’s game simply because of the fact that male players, 90% of the time, have superior physicality and are quicker. That’s all well and good when you’re a 30-year-old who has been accustomed to watching Barcelona and Milan on the weekends, but I was 8-years-old when France 1998 came around. I knew Zidane was special, but I could not get my head around why. Watching Figo, Laudrup, and Vieri was a bit like watching ‘Rush Hour’ at that same age; the Chris Tucker and Jackie Chan combo was brilliant, but by no means could I truly understand the racial and socio-economic nuances contained in the writing.
The women’s game was my entrance to understanding the thought that goes on behind the beautiful game. The slower pace meant a greater focus on tactics and doing the simple things with consistent success. Sure, Xavi, Messi, and Iniesta may combine for 60 or 70 one-two passes in a match, but it happens so quickly that it can so easily be missed by the viewer, not to mention an opponent. The 1999 World Cup team held no complex mysteries for its audience. They were hard working, they had perfected triangle passing and wing play, and they used their superior athleticism to dominate the opponent. These principles of doing the simple things, of consistency and composure, of a pure first touch, fall at the base of the sport as a whole, but they are so often overshadowed by the malarkey produced by the egos and tacticians striving to gain advantages in all the wrong ways. These women got it right, and even a kid could see exactly why.