Fate is smiling on the United States women’s soccer team.
It’s not so much evident in the way the team won Sunday’s quarterfinal game against Brazil – it was an ugly, disjointed, spirited, dramatic affair in which the American women’s strategy appeared to consist of running straight ahead into a brick wall until the wall finally crumbled – but more so in the circumstances that surround this Women’s World Cup.
For starters, it’s the middle of July. Those of you who follow sports don’t need much explaining about what a dead period of inactivity this is. By now you’ve probably done all the chores you care to do, and have spent more quality time with your family than you ever wanted and are quietly waiting for football season.
Those of us who cover sports for a living feel your pain, as day after day we clutch at scraps in a continual cycle of making something out of almost nothing.
Not only are three of the four major sports in the US not in season, two of them are involved in labor disputes, so the usual bevy of trade rumors and free agent signings that the NBA and NFL would be churning out right now by the dozen have been replaced by legal and financial mumbo jumbo that seems more designed to quiet infants than win any argument.
Into this void have stepped a few figures that we might not otherwise meet. Rory McIllroy is almost sort of a household name after winning golf’s US Open by a wide margin last month. The US men’s soccer team almost grabbed the spotlight last month. But, as often seems to be the case in recent years, when given an opportunity to truly make an impact both at home and abroad, the US men shrank from the opportunity, being badly outplayed by a Mexican squad missing five players in the finals of the Gold Cup.
Of course, most of the talk in this country concerning these two sports, not to mention tennis after Wimbledon, has focused on the fact that Americans weren’t winning these events. For a while there, we pretended to care. We really don’t. If we really cared about these sports on a national scale, we’d produce champions in them. When a country of this size and with this many resources decides to win at a sport, and puts a large enough share of its energy, money and manpower into achieving that goal, it generally does. Instead these sports are pursued by rather small pockets of people who don’t get anywhere near the support enjoyed by those in football, basketball and baseball.
The result is national disappointment when these sports get their rare turns in the spotlight. Disappointment is probably too strong a word. There certainly is a lot of hand-wringing in the media – mainly by those who follow these sports closely. The rest of us shrug and move on, wondering vaguely if the NFL will end its lockout in time for training camp.
But when a team wins, that’s something different. Noted sage George Patton said, “Americans love a winner, and will not tolerate a loser.” At least he did in the movie, and he was only half right anyway. We tolerate all sorts of losers, just as long as they don’t quit.
The US women, down a goal and a player in extra time, not only didn’t quit, but found a way to win, overcoming a couple of egregious refereeing errors along the way. And if there’s anything Americans love, it’s somebody overcoming injustice, persecution and conspiracies to eventually triumph.
That the population of the richest, most powerful country on Earth has come to have such a wide streak of paranoia is neither here nor there. The point is that the American women had one player ejected on a play in the 65th minute of the match. The ensuing penalty shot was blocked by US goalkeeper Hope Solo, only to have the play overturned, and the Brazilians given another shot at tying the match, which they did. The world’s best female player, Marta, then gave Brazil the lead shortly into the first extra time period.
But the US women scored at literally the last minute to tie the match, then won on penalty kicks. That they won one of the most dramatic sporting events ever was a triumph. That they did it at a time when they had the sports world’s attention, even better. Now they just need to finish the job. Oh, and hope the NFL doesn’t end the lockout before then.