Just hours after serving as the co-host of “Vuvuzela: The World Soccer Show” as I do every Sunday, I learned what I never thought was possible entering that show. The world cared about American soccer. The world cared about American women’s soccer. And it warmed my heart. Twitter and Facebook were buzzing over the Abby Wambach goal, the tv ratings were the highest since the World Cup Final in 1999, and the Women’s World Cup was the lead story on just about every sports show and website.
How did this happen? How did the country go from indifference and even scorn at the beginning of the tournament to a unified, enthusiastic attitude about these heroic women? It happened for about a hundred reasons, and each one was a necessary one to build the tremendous following that it did in two hours.
First, the Americans faced the national team from Brazil, a country which is arguably the most recognizable soccer nation in the entire world. If the United States faced Japan and won in this fashion, there is no way that the public attention would have been at the same level. The public needed a reason beyond simply the American team to rally its support. It needed a powerhouse to defeat and a team to hate, and Brazil provided that fuel. Second, Brazil’s Marta became the villain. Marta is the 5-time reigning World Soccer Player of the Year, but did not make many fans on Sunday. She yelled at a sprawled Abby Wambach after Marta believed that Wambach had flopped too easily on the prior play. Whether her claim had merit or not, when you yell at a defenseless player crumpled over on the field, you aren’t going to get the benefit of the doubt from the fans. Marta also earned a penalty kick in the 63rd minute on a questionable call, at best. Then, after her teammate missed the penalty kick that Marta had earned, the play was called back on a phantom call that was later found to be a questionable early entry into the box call. The following PK Marta hit with ease. In addition to the distaste for the Brazilian team as a whole, Marta became the villain and gave the fans another reason to watch.
To build upon the villain mentality, the American public was able to get behind this team because it became an underdog based upon the calls made during the game. The referee became the second true villain in this match. Both Brazil goals were not legitimate, the US lost Rachel Buehler to an incorrectly called red card, Marta should have earned a second yellow card in the 98th minute after intentionally grabbing Christie Rampone’s jersey from behind and pulling her down (much more deliberate than the play in the box called for a red card on Buehler), and there were many more questionable decisions by the referee that all seemed to go against the US team.
Now to the US Women’s team itself. Once the above factors got the public’s attention, everyone realized, “what isn’t to like about this team?” The team is led by goaltender Hope Solo, whose amazing athleticism and good looks certainly caused many to pay attention who otherwise wouldn’t. Moving outward from the goal, Abby Wambach, Megan Rapinoe, and Carli Lloyd provide the interesting storylines and the aggressiveness to the ball that puts them in good positions to score. The girls themselves provide the new faces of American soccer to replace Mia Hamm, Brandi Chastain, and the more notable names of the 1999 World Cup Championship team.
Finally, the way the team won was the most important reason why the national profile of this team increased exponentially this weekend. The team scored the 2nd quickest goal in US World Cup history in the 2nd minute, and went a full 2 hours of game time without a goal. The team played down 1 player for just under 60 minutes of play, and after the penalty kick by Marta, the US was able to match the Brazilians at 1 goal apiece in the final hour of play, including extra time.
The Abby Wambach header, which occurred in the 122nd minute, was the latest goal scored in the history of the Women’s World Cup. The climax of the game came so late, and was so exhilarating, one could not help but pay attention. Combine that extra time goal with the 5 for 5 masterpiece in the Penalty Kicks for the Americans and the save by Hope Solo on Daiane of Brazil, and this game provided one of the most thrilling atmospheres imaginable on the international stage.
There were countless reasons that the USA Women’s Soccer team went from oblivion to national spotlight, and every factor manifested into the sense of national pride that exists now because of the 11 women plus reserves who represent USA Soccer so well every game. These women have become national heroes, and the next and most important step is to win the game tomorrow against France in the semifinal. In 1980, the USA hockey team would not have had the same notoriety if it had lost the Gold Cup Game after winning the “Miracle on Ice.” Last year in the World Cup, the USA team would have been remembered even more than it is now for its thriller against Algeria if it hadn’t choked in the next round against Ghana. The girls are in the rare situation where all the attention is (rightly) placed upon them. Now let’s see how much these girls can continue to amaze us when the whole country is watching.