Girls Kick : Women's Soccer Earns a Unique Place in Sport

Article excerpt

In 1991 the U.S. women's soccer team won the FIFA (Federation of International Football Associations) Women's World Championship, defeating Norway 2--1 before sixty thousand fans in Canton, China. The victory hardly made a ripple in the American media. So minimal was the interest that some couldn't be bothered to even get the facts right: One newspaper erroneously reported Americans had won the game in Canton, Ohio.

When the victorious women arrived back in the United States, only a few family members were on hand to meet them. "Not one reporter or TV camera was there when we returned from China,"American midfielder Julie Foudy recalls. Women's team sports, it seemed, were still in the wilderness, misunderstood and rarely taken seriously.

But fast-forward eight years. On July 10, 1999, at the packed 90,000-seat Pasadena Rose Bowl in California, the U.S. women defeated China--in a nail-biting penalty shootout--to reclaim the World Championship. President Clinton was watching from the stands along with a TV audience of forty million. The game topped off a month in which Americans--many of whom had never given soccer a second thought--were captivated by the exploits of the U.S. women. "The American soccer team produced old-fashioned nationalism of the unprecedented, of transatlantic flights and moon walks," wrote New York Times writer Jerry Longman in his book The Girls of Summer. "Shattered was any lingering belief that no one would pay to watch women play soccer."

The championship game generated a higher rating than the finals of professional hockey and basketball. In seemingly no time, the American soccer players had become the nation's heroines. American forward Mia Hamm appeared in Nike commercials with sports giant Michael Jordan, and the women's soccer team was on the covers of Sports Illustrated, Time, and Newsweek. Never before in American history had soccer been given so much attention.

The future is feminine

It didn't go unnoticed in the land of baseball, hoops, and the Dallas Cowboys that women were leading the march for the sport. Sepp Blatter, the powerful president of FIFA, soccer's world governing body, even declared the "future of football is feminine."

The attention surrounding the photogenic American women signaled that women's team sports had to be taken seriously. Women could run, kick, play hard, and still not lose their femininity. And it was OK for women to show muscle, too!

The success of the women's team was also a breath of fresh air in the American sports environment. Soccer players like Hamm, Michelle Akers, Brandi Chastain, Kristine Lilly, and Tiffeny Milbrett carried the flag of liberation for women in the march to win attention on the male-dominated sports pages. "The exceptional success of the American women's game--in notable contrast to the status of their male counterparts--fulfills two key conditions essential to making any sport popular in the United States," wrote Andrei Markovits and Steven Hellerman in Offside: Soccer and American Exceptionalism, "attractiveness for winning and making their fans feel proud for being American."

Akers, the team's tall, chiseled midfielder and captain, had dreamed of being a linebacker for the Pittsburgh Steelers until being told that little girls didn't play football. She was now a spokeswomen for the cause of women's right to play and was promptly invited to the White House to speak on pay equity. But these new advocates for women's rights were not hard-line feminists; they had ponytails and girl-next-door looks. They were, as David Letterman told the world when he hosted them on his late- night show, "certifiably babes."

For the previous fifty years, U.S. men's soccer had been craving attention, but with little success. Though the United States had hosted the most financially successful World Cup ever in 1994, the American men could only manage to reach the last 16 of the competition. …