'That could be me'

Soccer's new reality for the little girl in all of us

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Our favorite cleat-wearing American women set the pace in last weekend's opening of the Women's World Cup soccer competition. But note that it was the crowd itself - the adoring faces of thousands of American girls - that shared space on the sports pages with images of the US Women's National Team.

There have been female superstars of sport, yes, but never before has there been a complete team of women making a mark in the world, heading up a "that could be me" vanguard for a generation of girls.

I have to admit, as I flip through news coverage of the World Cup and see pictures of halfback Melissa Akers midair, I can't help but wonder what would have happened if I'd seen those photos 20 years earlier.

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While women's athletic programs have always gotten the old gyms and small crowds, suddenly time and talent merge to give us a landmark that raises the bar for standards in women's team sports. Being first to try something new isn't good enough anymore. The demand is to be the best in the world.

Mia Hamm, widely acknowledged to be the best in the world with more points scored than anyone else in soccer history, has become a superstar for legions of suburban girls who've traded in pink ballet slippers for the racing stripes of soccer shoes.

But it's the glory of the team - the sheer number of excellent players - that makes little girls recognize the possibility of sport. From my vantage point as an avid female athlete in my 20s, I can look in both directions. When I read the game program the players' bios sound so similar to my own that I can almost feel the pre-game jitters, yet at the same time I want to paint my face and cheer the role models I never had.

When federal Title IX regulations were enacted in 1972 with the promise of equality in education, I was just learning to walk. By the time I was 6, my parents had signed me and my older brother up for coed soccer. With few organized teams, boys and girls played together - we were all equally bad.

Growing up, I heard stories from women my mother's age of being allowed to play only half-court basketball because full-court would be too stressful. I knew about games played in skirts, like tennis and field hockey.

A friend and self-described soccer mom with teen daughters recently said the only sport she did beside ballet was cheerleading.

"We danced because it was the only way we had to move," she said. (I admit my suspicion of cheerleading as sport.)

Nobody my mother's age had ever played soccer. And men didn't much either. My dad, for example, was recruited for the University of Chicago's soccer team by merely watching a practice and looking athletic.

By the time I played college soccer I was among the elite that had stormed the pitch since we had baby teeth.

My sophomore year, in 1990, our soccer team toured England for the first time in our school's history. As we clambered aboard trains and buses in sundresses dragging heavy duffel bags full of balls, cleats, and shin guards, fellow passengers would raise an inquisitive eyebrow.

"A woman's football team?" they would exclaim. They couldn't comprehend it because we were, well - pretty.

Whenever I play pick-up games with men, they challenge me from the start because I am fast and can kick with my left foot. They teach me to play faster, and I teach them that I can stop their passes and fall without getting hurt. We have all watched the same "100 Best Goals" soccer videos starring European men.

A college professor once pointed out that thanks to my generation of soccer players, her daughters were growing up with pictures of Mia Hamm and other stars of US women's soccer on their bedroom walls. I was impressed, though I barely knew names of national women's team players. Indeed, that team ironically made history - but no headlines - in 1991 by defeating China in the first Women's World Cup and later in 1996, winning the Olympic gold in a match NBC didn't bother to air.

I did see the US team play Finland in a World Cup preliminary game in Decatur, Ga., in 1995. The only reason I even knew about the game was that I lived near the hard-packed, practically grassless field. Fans filled only one side of the bleachers. But most were girls with unkempt ponytails still in practice clothes sporting shin guards that reached up to their knees. They leaned over the railing completely focused on the skill, dominion, and strength being demonstrated on the field. They were close enough to see the players' determination and delight after a good play.

These rapt young girls had in-the-flesh role models who dripped with sweat, bore chiseled muscles, and played the same sport they did.

An interesting thing about this year's World Cup excitement is its authenticity as a truly American female sports landmark in contrast to US men's soccer. While the US national men's team is dwarfed by teams from cultures embedded with generations of male soccer passion, the US women dominate the sport worldwide and are expected to triumph in these games.

And it's a growing contingent of little girls - and even boys - filling stadiums with moms, dads, and best friends who've come to watch living, breathing, kicking legends.

I, myself, will be heading to the nearly sold-out stadium in Foxboro, Mass., June 27, to watch the US National Team play North Korea in the Women's World Cup. There will be over 50 people in our group of women and men tailgating before the game. We've had our tickets, waiting for the excitement, since January.

Is it too late to want to be Mia Hamm when I grow up?

* Kendra Nordin, a Boston-based freelance writer, has played soccer for 22 years.

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