Monday, July 11, 2011

C'mon In Girls, the Water's Fine

Yeah, yeah, you've read this before. Or something close to it anyway.

The difference is fans of women's soccer in the United States don't need an introduction to the sport or to World Cup thrills.

But just as a year ago Landon Donovan and the U.S. men gave us 90 minutes of tension and then jubilation, so too Abby Wambach and the U.S. women (and a less-than-helpful Australian referee) gave us 122 minutes of nail-biting thrills against Brazil in the Women's World Cup yesterday and then tacked on a penalty shootout for good measure.

Megan Rapinoe and Abby Wambach celebrate Wambach's goal
(and Rapinoe's cross that set it up) at the death against Brazil.

Yesterday's match was the re-invigoration of soccer in our country that we so needed. Instead of its earliest ever exit from the World Cup, Wambach and her resilient, never-say-die teammates gave us a match for the ages and a lesson that makes us all feel a little bit better about the sport in our country. And maybe ourselves.

There's still a long way to go, no doubt about that. The Americans have to beat the surprising French in the semifinal and, if they get past Les Blues, either a team that has already bested them in this tournament (Pia Sundhage's native Sweden), or a Japan team that knocked out the favorites Germany in the quarterfinals.

While you have to like their chances, regardless of what happens in the semifinals and final, this game will likely be remembered as the match of the 2011 Women's World Cup, or perhaps any women's World Cup. Just as Donovan's goal, while ultimately not leading to a World Cup (or even a spot in the quarterfinals), was an example of grit and determination, so to the women's victory demonstrated guts, and heart, and most of all belief in the value of team.

Wambach's perfect header.

At the very least, the women made a believer out of their coach. "I come from Sweden," said Sundhage after the match, "and this American attitude, pulling everything together and bringing out the best performance in each other, that is contagious. I am very, very proud, and I'm very, very happy to be the coach of the U.S. team."  

The U.S. women faced a daunting task when the match began against a squad with the five-time defending world player of the year in Marta and several other teammates with, honestly, more flair than that possessed by any American player. An early own goal by Brazil seemed at the time a gift (the only one the Yanks received all evening), but may have caused them to play more tentatively as a result.

It would be easy to dwell on the negatives of the next two hours of soccer that followed that first goal.  Horrible refereeing decision upon bad. Cynical play and play-acting by the Brazilians. Even, surprisingly, at times clueless commentary by the usually fine Ian Darke and Julie Fouty (90 plus 15 plus 15 equals 120, not 115 y'all). More globally, whether it's good that the women's game appears to be evolving into the same bad-tempered, cynical affair that marks the men's game. Or whether our apparent malaise regarding women's soccer is indicative of a misogynistic turn that my favorite soccer blogger, Fake Sigi, thinks our nation has taken in the last 12 years.

But we'll leave all that for another day (if ever). Now is the time to just revel. In the accomplishments of a team of resolute women who ignored at best horrible misfortune and at worst a stacking of the deck against them. In a team that stuck to the task at hand and believed, when all seemed lost, that they would persevere.

Or, as Wambach said after the match: "I think that is a perfect example of what this country is about. What the history of this team has always been. We never give up. We literally went to the last second it seems."

The reference in the title to this post is to the Donovan goal a year ago, and to Delmar's invitation to join the nation of believers in O Brother Where Art Thou? But perhaps a better observation from Delmar for yesterday's game, and our reaction to it, comes after Delmar thinks that he has discovered that his fellow escapee Pete in an altered state. "Them syreens did this to Pete." says Delmar. "They loved him up and turned him into a toad."

What's the state of U.S. soccer? For at least one day, it's about as good as it can get, thanks to the sirens of our national team. Color us grey and cover us with warts for all we care.

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