In sweltering heat and sun, I watched 14 women fight through 120 minutes of soccer only to decide the game with penalty kicks. Though it featured no goals, the match was the single most inspiring and exciting sporting event I have ever attended.
For most Americans, Brandi Chastain’s iconic celebration of the winning moment is the image that will forever commemorate that occasion. While I will never forget witnessing that instant, Chastain wasn’t the player who made that day so meaningful for me.
The player who did wasn’t even on the field for the winning moment.
Michelle Akers was in the locker room, after battling her chronic fatigue syndrome through 90 minutes in 90-degree heat and even higher stakes. I didn’t even comprehend at the age of eight that she was being taken off the field with a medical problem. For 90 whole minutes, I had watched her play skillful, passionate, and aggressive soccer, never faltering until the moment when medics had to help her off the field.
Though Akers retired early the next year, her resilience never left. And in spite of yesterday’s loss in the final, it never will.
That determination and drive is what has defined the U.S. women’s national soccer program and all its players, from Akers’ generation to Alex Morgan’s. The way the team trudged through tough calls and tougher breaks in the quarterfinal against Brazil reflected that undying national character.
In the early ’90s, the team played for practically no money or national recognition. They won the first-ever Women’s World Cup in 1991 and kept playing, bouncing back after a loss in the ’95 cup to win an Olympic gold one year later.
Though that team was still playing with little domestic support, they channeled the disadvantages and frustrations into an even more impassioned game — the same way this year’s squad did a player down against Brazil.
When the United States survived into overtime, that success was dampened quickly by Marta’s goal. It was much like the incredibly short-lived momentum the program experienced after the ’99 victory. Four years after that win, the three-year-old WUSA folded and the U.S. didn’t even see the World Cup final.
But embodying the spirit of Akers and her teammates who fostered in the team an unfaltering will to compete against the odds, the women’s national team pressed forward.
As the retirement of four of Akers’ founding teammates approached during the 2004 Olympics, Abby Wambach scored in overtime against Brazil to send the players off with a gold medal. The goal not only secured the title but served as a reminder of the hope for the team’s bright future.
As time dwindled away in overtime against Brazil last Sunday, announcer Julie Foudy kept insisting the United States was still in it. Spectators were probably rolling their eyes at her optimism, but Foudy, a former national team captain, knew the team better than to assume defeat, even as overtime rolled into stoppage time.
This team just thrives when the odds are against it.
Though the 1999 World Cup was, for the women who played, an opportunity to prove to a point the country and world, I watched with the same blind faith Foudy had as she watched the team against Brazil last week.
Perhaps it was eight-year-old naïveté, but I remember watching the game without a question of who would win. I had seen Akers playing, and the team had nothing to prove to me — I already believed.
The team may have lost some believers during the final. But those who have been watching them for the past 12 years (or more) know better. The quarterfinal match was a sweet reminder of the awe-inspiring resilience that captivated me in 1999. That resilience endures whether or not the team is the reigning champs.
And if Alex Morgan and the rest of the newest generation continue to play as they have, we won’t have to wait another 12 years to witness it again.