The hard part of watching the Japanese and Americans battle for the Olympic gold medal on Thursday is knowing there is no sustaining model for big-time women’s soccer.
The 2-1 victory by the Americans was terrific television, just like matches last Monday, last July, in 1999, in 1996. But two American professional leagues have failed since the United States allegedly discovered women’s soccer during the Summer Games in Georgia in 1996.
NBC did right by the women in this Olympics. I can recall an American soccer federation official, Hank Steinbrecher, screaming at NBC functionaries right after the 1996 final in Athens, Ga., when the network played catch-up ball in showing the American gold medal celebration when it hadn’t bothered showing the match itself.
''NBC must think the world is full of divers,” Steinbrecher snarled.
In 2001, it was a shock to me when the league known as W.U.S.A. opened a few miles from my home on Long Island – with tens of thousands of registered female players within driving distance – and Mia Hamm and the best players in the world could not fill a dinky so-called stadium.
That league went down, as so did something called the W.P.S., not because the media did not publicize them but because ratings did not attract sponsors. Apparently, people – girls, women – would rather play soccer than watch soccer. That’s probably good.
Now there is talk about a few teams forming a new league in 2013 but I will believe it when I see it. To a soccer buff who loves to watch the women’s game, it is sad to think there is no showcase for charismatic players of this generation – Americans like Hope Solo, who made three terrific saves on Thursday, or Carli Lloyd, who scored both goals, or Alex Morgan, who won Monday’s semifinal over Canada with a sensational leaping header, plus that great bridge to the past, Abby Wambach.
Kristine Lilly and Julie Foudy and the rest can be secure in what they accomplished, but Solo and her teammates have earned the right to wear the t-shirts they broke out Thursday that said Greatness Has Been Found. It’s kind of a passive statement, but the point was made. They are the champions, my friends. And the highly competitive Solo can be assured that her three magnificent saves Thursday probably trump anything the resourceful Briana Scurry ever did during the golden age.
Plus, the game itself keeps improving. As great as Michelle Akers was – she’s still the best female player I have ever seen – the skill and tactical level of these players keeps rising.
On Thursday, I saw fine points I don’t think were being performed in 1996 or 1999 (admittedly, memory is tricky.) Megan Rapinoe forwarded a ball with a flick of the back of her head; Morgan chased a ball along the end line and pivoted and blindly centered it to create the first goal; and Lloyd dribbled over 30 yards and split two defenders to find her space for the second goal.
Have the new champions learned from coaching? From competition? From watching the Messis and Cristiano Ronaldos of the world, as I suspect female basketball players have learned from watching the Jordans and Kobes? The women have expanded the art of the possible in their sport.
The new wave has produced three hugely entertaining matches – Thursday’s final, plus Monday’s American victory over Canada, plus last summer’s shootout victory by Japan over the U.S. in the 2011 Women’s World Cup following the terrible tragedy in Japan. The matches were gripping; the players admirable; as an American with friends in Canada and Japan, I could not root in either match. But I do root for women’s soccer.
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