In World Cup, a waymark for women

In the end, it wasn't about Kristine or Julie, Brandi or Michelle. It wasn't even about Mia.

In the end, the 1999 Women's World Cup was about the fans who made the event a transcendant moment in American athletics.

Years from now, only soccer fans will recall Brandi Chastain's sweetly struck penalty kick - the shot that won the title. But an entire nation will remember how it was transfixed for one month by 20 women playing a formerly foreign sport in sold-out stadiums usually reserved only for games that men play.

The World Cup, energized by a generation of girls who have grown up in a time of equal funding for men's and women's athletics, touched a chord in the American character. More than a just a tournament, it became a waymark for the progess of women - and their sports - in America.

Indeed, in the evolving and ongoing process to promote equality of the sexes, big-time sports often seem to be the last bastion of unabashed maleness. But for the past three weeks, the Women's World Cup has been the story on American sports pages.

Gymnastics and tennis have captured the nation's imagination before, but never has a women's sport that is so widely played achieved something on this scale.

To be sure, the success of the World Cup will not herald the "arrival" of women's team sports in a way that worries the NFL or NBA - the US women don't even have a league to play in. In fact, many of them now have to think about returning to their jobs as teachers or college soccer coaches until warm-ups for the 2000 Olympics begin.

Still, this tournament is the most emphatic statement yet that the traditional masculine model for professional sports is slowly and irrevocably changing.

"I think you'll have even more young girls playing soccer. I think you'll have even more young girls playing other sports," said President Clinton after watching the Cup final in Pasadena, Calif. "I think you'll have even more young girls finding self-confidence and other ways to express themselves because of what these women have accomplished."

In a peculiar sort of way, the final game itself seemed almost a formality - the US simply had to win to provide a suitable ending to the tournament's remarkable storyline. The US never played to a crowd of less than 50,000 fans, and everywhere the team went, it was followed by throngs of pony-tailed "hooligans" - America's answer to the legion of ill-mannered fanatics who so often mar the international game.

Always enthusiastic and often covered in several coats of red, white, and blue face paint, the girls who filled stadiums and clamored for autographs became a part of the US mission. The team went so far as to run a TV ad, thanking the fictitious girl sitting in Section T for making the World Cup possible.

From the first ball kicked, there was an awareness among members of the US team that they wanted to leave a legacy, to raise the level of women's athletics here by accomplishing something extraordinary.

And so they have.

Not that their level of play was so inspiring. The fact is, Saturday's final against China was an ideal example of everything Americans deride about soccer - lots of defense, few moments of exceptional skill.

But that turned out to be of little consequence. Once the 120 minutes of tedium were dispatched, the 0-0 score actually served to heighten the drama. It also provided viewers with perhaps the most indelible image of the tournament: the picture of Chastain kneeling in front of the Chinese goal, fists clenched, arms extended in jubilation.

That's what matters.

By winning, the US team created a kind of Homeric myth - like the Olympic men's hockey team did with its Miracle on Ice in 1980. It didn't matter what the US did for the first 120 minutes. All that mattered was that the thousands of girls in Pasadena - and the millions who tuned in at home - went to bed with visions of Brandi Chastain bouncing through their heads.

Mr. Clinton knows that in 10 years, these will be the women who change the way Americans see women in sports.

During a halftime interview, he noted that the women of this US national team are the children of Title IX. The 1972 law, which mandated equal funding for men's and women's sports in publicly funded institutions, gave these women the opportunity to achieve what they did, he said.

But he also hinted that American women now stand on the threshold of something new. While Title IX allowed girls and young women to achieve a measure of equality in school athletics, events like the World Cup show how women are now taking the next step - putting a feminine stamp on mainstream team sports, as fans and participants.

Brandi and Kristine and Mia could not have hoped to leave a bigger legacy than that.

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