The Women's World Cup was competition at its most vibrant, and the final took your breath away. It fused two often ignored elements of American sports, women and soccer, into one transformative moment, and held a nation in thrall. What will forever be remembered about the match at the Rose Bowl is the intensity and spirit with which the American and Chinese women played. The U.S. team, with its spellbinding victory, reminded us of the highest purpose of sport: to inspire. Akers and Foudy and Scurry and Chastain and their 16 teammates, forwards Mia Hamm, Tiffeny Milbrett, Cindy Parlow, Shannon MacMillan and Danielle Fotopoulos; midfielders Kristine Lilly, Tisha Venturini and Tiffany Roberts; defenders Carla Overbeck, Joy Fawcett, Kate Sobrero, Sara Whalen, Lorrie Fair and Christie Pearce; and goalkeepers Saskia Webber and Tracy Ducar—they are SPORTS ILLUSTRATED'S Sportswomen of the Year for 1999.
A special mention must go to the U.S. women's coach, Tony DiCicco, who ran the team marvelously during the World Cup and for the five years preceding it. We leave off the big fella intentionally, albeit reluctantly. We want to celebrate the players—for the memorable way they performed on the field, for the engaging way they talked to fans and reporters, for the fierce way they practiced, for the casual way they hung out in airports and hotel lobbies, for the purposeful way they huddled, pregame, midgame, postgame. And while we salute the win at the Rose Bowl and the five preceding victories that gave the U.S. its spot in the title game, we recall that this team was 14 years in the making, that its longest tentacles—symbolized by the curly, flowing mane of Akers, the 33-year-old defensive midfielder who has been on the team since its inception—reach back to the '85 Olympic Sports Festival in Baton Rouge, where the original roster was filled.
Given how momentous the three-week, 16-team, 32-match tournament turned out to be, with 658,167 fans attending and 40 million Americans watching the final on TV, it is no wonder that Foudy—or Loudy Foudy, as the 28-year-old midfielder is called, because her every utterance is delivered as if it should end with an exclamation mark—had a queasy stomach before facing China. Even Akers, scanning the Rose Bowl for her father, Bob, before the game, could hardly believe her eyes. She was the oldest U.S. team member, and she recalled the early years, when players received $10 a day in meal money and carried their own bags and her dad was a cinch to find in the tiny crowds. Everything had changed. The perimeter of the Rose Bowl field was lined with ads for, among others, Fuji film, MasterCard, Coca-Cola, Bud Light. When your sport can sell Bud Light, Akers thought to herself, you're big-time.
The money wasn't reaching the players, not in any significant way. For Akers and her teammates money was not a preoccupation. (Can you imagine?) Akers had never earned as much as $200,000 in a year—endorsements included—and most of her teammates had never made half that. For the moment they found satisfaction in knowing that they were among the world's elite athletes, and that added immeasurably to their appeal.
Akers thinks back on the inaugural team with a certain embarrassment. She was a sophomore at Central Florida when she was named to it. The first U.S. players faced teams from countries where soccer is an integral part of me culture: Denmark, England, Italy. The savvy Europeans elbowed the U.S. players, pulled their shirts, spat at them. It was the Americans who drew yellow cards, red ones, lost. But they also learned, fast. Entering the World Cup tide game, they had a record of 64 wins, 33 losses and 13 ties.
Four F-18s flew over the Rose Bowl. The crowd roared. The game began. In the eighth minute, the U.S. had a chance to take the lead. Hamm, the most prolific scorer in women's soccer history, sent a hooking free kick in the direction of China's goal. Out of nowhere Akers came bounding into the play and attempted to get her right foot on the ball. She got just enough of it to send it sailing out-of-bounds.
It was a tough chance, but Akers's instinct for scoring was not what it had once been. "Michelle was Mia before there was a Mia," DiCicco often said to fans and sportswriters who were new to the sport. From 1990 to '96 Akers was the team's striker, and until 1998 she was its alltime leading scorer. But while her intensity had only increased, her advancing age, her 13 knee surgeries and her eight-year battle with chronic fatigue syndrome had conspired to slow her down. For the '96 Olympics, Akers moved to midfield, and Hamm took over Akers's role as the main offensive force. By the time the World Cup started, Hamm's goal total stood at 112; Akers's, at 102.
The two women are not particularly close. Who would expect them to be? Did Joe DiMaggio befriend Mickey Mantle when the Mick replaced him as the New York Yankees' centerfielder? But Akers, a born charger, and Hamm, who is far more demure off the field, do have an abiding respect for each other. In her book, Go for the Goal, Hamm writes, "I think the best goal scorer ever to play our game is Michelle Akers." (That a 27-year-old American female soccer player now has her book prominently displayed in nearly every mall bookstore in the country would have been, just a few years ago, as improbable as the sellout at the Rose Bowl.) Akers calls Lilly the finest all-around player she has ever seen but says that "Mia is the greatest offensive player. She can continue to be for a long, long time if she just plays with the confidence she should have." This is how the U.S. team members are, constantly building one another up, but with candor, not fulsome praise.
You shouldn't get the idea that the players are always nice to each other. They're just like the members of any male team you've ever been around or read about. Off the field, endless needling. On the field, continual berating, all in the interest of winning. Late in their quarterfinal match, against Germany, the Americans held a 3-2 lead, and Akers was playing like a 19-year-old kid, which was not a good thing. She was hell-bent on having her team get another goal, and if she scored it herself, well, that would be just fine. But a fourth goal was not the U.S. team's highest priority. At least it shouldn't have been.
"We're up a goal, Akers, we're up a goal!" Lilly screamed.