When Brandi Chastain scored the fifth and final penalty kick in the 1999 Women's World Cup to defeat China, I was sitting in front of more big-screen televisions than I'd ever seen before at the Bowl-O-Rama restaurant in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and I was almost eleven years old. After it was over, as Chastain ripped off her shirt, I was quite certain that no moment in sports could ever top this one. I felt strongly, along with the rest of Ponytail America, that I would (for I knew that I could) one day play on that team and score the same goal that Chastain had just scored.
For quite some time, I would not entertain the staple playground fantasies of a game-winning home run or a fadeaway three-pointer at the buzzer. Soccer was suddenly the only sport that would, I thought, live up to my newly established expectations for a sport that women could play — and that was probably because most anyone could reproduce Chastain's penalty kick. It was iconic and accessible all at once, and it arrived at the perfect time.
This was a feeling, spread across every adolescent female soccer player in the country, that had very much to do with ponytails and sports bras and the familiar thud of hitting a soccer ball, and not much at all to do with an accurate sense of our own abilities. It did not matter. There were things open to question that summer — who our middle school teachers might be, for one, when we'd be allowed to get our ears pierced, for another — but our playing Division I soccer for the University of North Carolina and then captaining the national team and winning a World Cup ourselves just was not one of them. This much we all knew.
Yesterday, exactly 12 years after that day in Bowl-O-Rama, I watched the women's national team beat Brazil in penalty kicks, 2(5)-2(3). Before they won, the U.S. tied the Samba Queens in extra stoppage time, and while down a player, with one of the most spectacular, nonpareil goals in U.S. soccer history.
This time around, the game felt like a very good soccer game; it was not merely a moment for nostalgia. What the U.S. did yesterday will surely inspire a new wave of young girls, but it is not replicable. There aren't many moments in women's sports that are purely unbelievable sports moments, but Abby Wambach's perfect header off of Megan Rapinoe's perfect feed in the 122nd minute against Brazil yesterday was one of those moments. It is a play that makes your jaw drop and that you must watch repeatedly and studiously to grasp how it might have happened, and even then you can't quite believe that it still happened that way, because it was perfect and it would have been perfect if it had been Iniesta serving Villa instead.
By now, yesterday's game has been recapped and whittled down to the plays that mattered: Daiane's own goal, the questionable penalty kick that referee Jacqui Melksham awarded to Marta, the grievously bad call on Hope Solo's ensuing save (FIFA ultimately said that she'd stepped off the line before the shot), the missed call on American Carli Lloyd's handball at the start of the second half, the possibly missed offside call on Brazil prior to Marta's beautiful second goal, and of course, the regrettably necessary penalty kicks and Solo's remarkable save on Daiane's attempt. It was a game, as Slate's Josh Levin pointed out yesterday, that made even U.S. fans question what the truly fair outcome would be.
But the one turning point that was not marred by any kind of controversy or questions and that was just objectively great, even after 30 replays, was Rapinoe-to-Wambach in the 122nd minute.
"I just took a touch and friggin' smacked it with my left foot," Rapinoe said after the game, in one of the greatest personal play-by-plays ever delivered. "I don't think I've ever hit a ball like that with my left foot. I got it to the back post and that beast in the air just got a hold of it."
U.S. coach Pia Sundhage, whose decisions often make fans of the team wary, sent Rapinoe in at the 55' mark, a decision that, well, made some wary. Rapinoe is praised for her aggression (for the ability to friggin' smack it, for example) but not necessarily for exemplary control. But it took an aggressive soul to retrieve a ball from the middle of the field and to have seen — just barely in her line of vision — Wambach's right arm pointing towards the right goalpost.
Any person who has played a sport and played it well knows that feeling when a play feels instantly right. In the replay angle that shows Rapinoe's delivery best, she gazes up after making contact with the ball and then, against her momentum, takes a few steps back, staring after it like she knows that it will go exactly where she intended it to go.
The "beast" in question was Wambach, who had been — for her standards — off the mark in group play, especially in her aerial game. She stands about six feet tall in spikes, and her height brings a threatening element to her game. But even with some faltering, and even in a contest that had pitched every possible setback against her squad, Wambach said later that she never doubted that they would win.
A lot of people today are attributing this to the American team's mentality, and to a certain kind of American spirit in sports. Sundhage, who is Swedish, said that she found the American attitude of "pulling everything together and bringing the best [out] of each other" to be "contagious," Solo called it "a feeling" that can't really be coached, and Wambach said that the team always felt that "all it takes is one chance."
Even Marta had previously acknowledged it. The Brazil star has been around for five consecutive losses to the Americans, and when a reporter asked her what made the difference, she pointed to her head and explained, "It's the mentality."
I think that's an easy way to explain away a remarkable play and a game that will probably be the basis for a feature film some day, but it's also an encouraging shift to the way that we can talk about the women's game. Truthfully, attributing a mixture of ability and chance to a nation's spirit is almost as accommodating as the narrative that I felt such a part of in the summer of 1999, when I and every other adolescent girl believed that she would be The Next Mia Hamm.
The U.S. didn't beat China 12 years ago because every young American girl needed to be liberated through her own pair of shin-pads, even though, for a young girl with her own pair of shin pads, that was what it felt like to watch it happen. Yesterday's iconic play did not loan itself to adolescent daydreams, because it is nearly impossible to pull off, and that's probably for the best. It's nice to say that the U.S. beat Brazil because of a particular female or American spirit, but it still ignores that Rapinoe's cross to Wambach or Solo's save in the PKs were not merely miraculous women's soccer plays or American soccer plays; they were simply very good soccer plays that we will not tire of watching, again and again.
Photo by Marcio Jose Sanchez of the AP.