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.