There’s Always Hope
It’s easy to joke that the only thing Americans care less about than soccer (translation for our non-U.S. readers: “the sport called ‘football’ that’s being ruined by Sepp Blatter, rather than the one being ruined by Roger Goodell”) is soccer when it’s played by women. Then again, the highest-rated American soccer broadcast of all time is a women’s soccer match, the USA-China final of the 1999 Women’s World Cup. You know, the one that ended with Brandi Chastain ripping off her shirt.
Maybe the difference is that while American men are not among the best in the world at playing soccer, American women are. I’ve believed for a long time that the reason Americans won’t embrace soccer is that we’re used to the best players in the world coming from here and plying their trade here. That’s not true in men’s soccer, but it is true for the women.
In any event, if you’re an American who watched the USA-Brazil soccer match and didn’t see something of what the rest of the world sees in soccer, you are hopeless.
What did this match have?
Oppression. It’s so easy to yell at officials for making bad calls and accuse them of being on the take. I get tired of the abuse I hear being hurled at officials at baseball and football games—well, at least when it’s not obvious that the officials are blind as bats.
Then again, these are FIFA referees. (If you don’t speak French, FIFA is an acronym for “Bribes Accepted Here.”)
Was Australian referee Jacqui Melksham on the take? Just incompetent? Selectively enforcing the rules? Whatever the reason, in about 30 seconds the referee gave the match to Brazil. She (probably rightly) called a penalty in the box, eventually giving the best player in the world, Brazil’s Marta, an easy kick for a 1-1 equalizer; the penalty was a red card on Rachel Buehler that forced the USA to play the final 25 minutes of regulation down a player.
The worst was yet to come: when USA Goalie Hope Solo managed to somehow save the first penalty try, Melksham swooped in to disallow the save (because a USA player had a foot inside the box), give Solo a yellow card for dissent, and allow Brazil a second chance. Enter Marta (of course!) for the re-kick, which she made.
Later on, when Marta hit her inevitable goal during extra time to put Brazil ahead 2-1, replays showed that the player who fed her the ball was probably offside. No call. Of course.
Villains. Melksham and Marta were jeered mercilessly by the crowd. Marta was, in the words of ESPN’s Ian Darke, the “pantomime villain” of the piece. Arguing with Melksham resulted in a yellow for dissent. She took a few dives. After Marta’s goal in extra time the Brazilians started taking dives like the Italian men’s World Cup team.
Bumbling villains. Until the last minute, the entire USA offense was… the Brazilians. The match started with an own-goal, though it was one forced by some pressure by the Americans. The immediate own-goal changed the complexion of the match, putting the USA at ease and making the Brazilians play with some fear. Until the 30 seconds of intense referee interference in the match, it was a weird-yet-defining moment.
Underdogs. The U.S. spent nearly an hour playing shorthanded, against the best woman player in the world, having probably been wronged by the officials. After Marta’s goal the U.S. had to play 28 minutes of extra time while down a goal. You don’t get much more underdoggy than that.
Unbelievable comebacks. Soccer matches take about 90 minutes, give or take some injury time. The equalizing goal from the USA’s Abby Wambach happened in the 122nd minute. It wasn’t just the end of extra time, it was two minutes into the final three minutes of injury time tacked on to the end. (Time that wouldn’t have been there had Brazil not been shamelessly diving to try and run out the clock.) It does not get more last-minute than that.
Penalty kicks. After two hours of hard soccer play, the winner had to be determined in an exchange of penalty kicks. This is like two basketball teams settling a tie not with an overtime period, but with a game of H-O-R-S-E. And yet, as ridiculous as going to kicks is, it’s also pretty damned dramatic.
Sex appeal. No, nobody ripped their shirts off like Brandi Chastain. But: Hope Solo was in goal. Gentlemen, I rest my case.
[Photo credit: Hope Solo in what we believe is a promo shot for Nike.]