Magazine article Newsweek

Keeping Her Own Score: The World Cup Will Show Everyone How Good Mia Hamm Is. Why Can't She See It?

Magazine article Newsweek

Keeping Her Own Score: The World Cup Will Show Everyone How Good Mia Hamm Is. Why Can't She See It?

Article excerpt

In soccer circles, the story has been told and retold so often that it has taken on Arthurian, sword-in-the-stone dimensions. How in the mid-'80s Anson Dorrance, then coach of the U.S. women's national team, ventured south to scout a 14-year-old Texas wunderkind. Dorrance had no idea what Mia Hamm looked like; he hoped that even though she'd be vying against college-age all-stars, the kid would somehow stand out. The ball was kicked off and, he recalls, "this little girl took off like she was shot out of a cannon. I thought, 'Oh my God.' I couldn't believe the athleticism." Mia remembers it differently. She felt overmatched against fitter, faster, stronger players and spent much of the game sucking air. "I really struggled," she says.

Today Hamm is women's soccer's most lethal weapon, offensive linchpin of the American team favored to win the Women's World Cup that kicks off Saturday in New Jersey's Giants Stadium. At 27, she is the No. 1 goal scorer ever--man or woman--in international soccer and a hero to millions of young, sports-minded girls. "When Mia touches the ball, you just feel great things are going to happen," says U.S. team co-captain Carla Overbeck. She has scored off the field, too, a photogenic Nike icon who has sold everything from shoes to shampoo.

But though the stakes have changed, for Hamm some things always remain the same. She will never be as impressed with her game--or her hype--as everyone else is. Now America will get a chance to judge for itself. And if all goes well, this ultimate showcase for Mia and the U.S. team won't end until three weeks later in the Rose Bowl, with 92,000 frenzied fans and a national TV audience cheering America on to the championship. "For us this is the pinnacle," says Hamm.

Hamm will never bring up this season's other peak moment, when she set the all-time scoring record. Where the soccer world sees a superstar forward who has scored 109 goals, Mia sees a solid cog in an exceptionally fine machine. Ask about her deft scorer's touch, and she swears it will never rival that of teammate Michelle Akers. Talk about her versatility, and Mia insists she's no Kristine Lilly, who plays behind her in the midfield. "I'm no better than a lot of people on this U.S. team," says Hamm, sitting at a shaded picnic table a corner-kick away from her teammates on the practice field outside Orlando, Fla. "I learn that every day when I go up against [defender] Kate Sobrero in practice. She doesn't care how many goals I've scored or what's written about me."

The staff of the U.S. team has dubbed Hamm the "reluctant diva." Posing for a team picture, she avoids her rightful spot in the center and stands on the flank. Hamm dislikes interviews; her popularity in the country's suburban soccer enclaves has been built with deeds, not words. Her upbringing as one of five children in a conservative military family helps explain her disdain for trash-talking and self-promotion. "I wasn't raised that way," says Hamm, who reupped for military life when she married a Marine pilot in 1995.

At the very least, Hamm, who was named one of People magazine's 50 most beautiful people after her star turn in the '96 Olympics, is uncomfortable with her singular stature and superstar income in a low-profile, low-income sport. (She is estimated to earn $1 million annually, largely from a half-dozen endorsement deals.) Hamm is not, however, totally attention-averse: Nike just named the biggest building on its corporate campus after her; she goes one on one with Michael Jordan in a high-profile Gatorade ad; she has a new book, "Go for the Goal," and she's official spokeswoman for the new soccer Barbie. ("I can kick and throw like Mia Hamm," proclaims Barbie, whose long hair and leggy look bear little resemblance to Hamm, who is a compact 5 feet 5 with short, brown hair.) "When I was little, Barbie rode around in a red Corvette and lived in a mansion," she told kids at a doll's unveiling. …

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