Two ships passing
As Brazil emerges as a power, is U.S. on way down?
Posted: Friday September 28, 2007 5:12PM; Updated: Friday September 28, 2007 5:20PM
Got a text from my buddy J.C. right after the best women's soccer player I've ever seen (Brazil's Marta) scored her breathtaking, Maradona-at-the-height-of-his-powers goal to sink the U.S. 4-0 in Thursday's Women's World Cup semifinals.
My pal's a diehard U.S. fan -- men and women -- and he threw out this provocative conversation-starter: The U.S. men will win a World Cup before the U.S. women win another one.
I hear what he's saying. He saw the U.S. men out-Brazil Brazil at the Under-20 World Cup this summer. He knows that the U.S. men are producing more talented players than ever before, knows that -- last year's World Cup results notwithstanding -- the U.S. men are a growth stock, a program on a slow but undeniably upward trajectory.
But what he's really asking is this: How much of the U.S. women's remarkable success over the years (the 1991 and '99 World Cup titles, the '96 and 2004 Olympic gold medals) was due to its head start on the rest of the world afforded by Title IX and the U.S.' more enlightened attitude toward women in sports?
And, now that those societal changes are starting to happen in countries with far more ingrained soccer cultures -- in Brazil most clearly, but also in England -- has the U.S. women's head start been erased for good? Has the rest of the world finally caught up and surpassed the Americans? And is there any way to reverse the process, or is the genie out of the bottle?
I know, I know: Thursday's loss to Brazil was only one game. There's always a tendency to overstate the importance of one game -- particularly a World Cup game -- and the U.S. had gone 51 matches without a loss until Thursday.
But Brazil's total domination of the U.S. in nearly every facet -- creativity, speed, confidence, teamwork, soccer smarts -- was hardly the first occasion in this tournament when the U.S. looked like a fading power, a team lacking in imagination and pure soccer talent. Is that the fault of a coach and his chosen playing style? Partly, perhaps, but by no means entirely.
Ask yourself: If you were going to start an 11-player team and could choose any women's players in the world, you'd only pick one American for sure: forward Abby Wambach. (The only other possibilities might be defender Cat Whitehill and goalkeeper Hope Solo, who's hardly perfect but may be the best of a suspect goalie lot worldwide these days. And she didn't even play on Thursday.)
But all three of those Americans are closer to 30 than to 20. The Brazilian stars you'd pick are frighteningly young. Marta is 21. Cristiane is 22. Daniela is 23. More, inevitably, are on the way.
And yet, in the end, I'm not yet ready to declare the U.S. men will win a World Cup before the U.S. women win another. There still isn't nearly as much global competition for the women as there is for the men, and the infrastructure and sheer numbers of female soccer players in the United States suggest that future stars will emerge -- maybe even ones who can break the current trend of supremely athletic but robotic players.
Granted, Mia Hamm isn't walking through that door. Michelle Akers isn't walking through that door. The irony is that their pioneering success helped accelerate the end of the U.S. dynasty, helped open the door for women's soccer players in Brazil, helped create the conditions for a wondrous talent like Marta to appear on the world scene.