Akers: We won!
Lady on plane: Oh, that's nice.
Things were a little different at the 1996 Games in Atlanta, when women's soccer was an Olympic medal sport for the first time. The championship match was played down the road in Athens, and 76,481 people came out to watch the gold medal match, which turned out to be a preview of the '99 World Cup final, China versus the U.S. The U.S. won, 2-1.
But NBC showed only snippets of the game, and there was no jubilant national reaction. It was as if the country were not ready to embrace women's soccer. The women basketball players, also gold medal winners, were everywhere. A women's professional basketball league was about to start, and the sport was benefiting from an extensive public relations push. There was no professional women's soccer league. (One was then in the planning stages, where it still remains.) There was nowhere, really, for fans of women's soccer to go. The next big event would be in the summer of 1999. A devoted group of fans spent three years waiting for the Cup. By July 10 they were frothing at the mouth—and most of America had joined them.
For the entire second half Akers was delirious. She was oblivious to the crowd noise. The only thing she was aware of was the pounding in her head and the words going through it with every step she took: Only 20 more minutes. Don't quit. Only 19 more minutes. Track that ball. Don't look at the clock. Win this head ball. Only 16 more minutes. Only 15 more minutes. Win this tackle. Get lost in the game. Don't quit. Don't quit. Do not quit.
For Akers the end finally came as the game—the regulation part of it, anyway—was in its waning moments. The Chinese had a corner kick. Akers went to stop it with her head. Scurry went to punch it out with her right fist. Akers's head got a piece of the ball, and Scurry's fist got a piece of Akers's head. Akers went tumbling to the ground. Her World Cup career was over. The clock ran out and the game was still scoreless and the ultimate soccer warrior, one of the best to play the game, needed help getting off the field. She was led to the trauma room, where she was hooked up to two intravenous lines and an oxygen tank. All through the 30-minute overtime Akers was unable to focus on the game on TV. She was, she says, loony.
With Akers out, DiCicco sent in one of his youngest players, Whalen, 23, who was shaking like a leaf. Akers knows what it's like to play your first minute in your first World Cup final. All you're trying to do, she says, is not make a mistake. That's easier than it sounds. On her first touch Whalen sent the ball out-of-bounds, not because of pressure from China but because of pressure from the setting: a World Cup final, in front of a home crowd, in a scoreless overtime, noise everywhere. Deep down, Whalen had every reason to be confident. Despite her inexperience she was playing because DiCicco thought she was already an immense soccer talent, at the vanguard of the next generation of U.S. players poised to replace the pioneers who are their role models, whose pictures they had plastered on their bedroom walls. Akers herself is not so sure. She wonders if Whalen is too well-adjusted to become a world-beater. Whalen has a life. To become a Michelle Akers, Michelle Akers will tell you, your zeal for soccer has to be monomaniacal.
Whalen settled down, and the overtime ended. The shootout began. The U.S. team's medical people propped up Akers so she could watch. Everything was fuzzy for her when Scurry—or Hair, as Akers calls her, and she calls Akers, for their abundant tresses—made her save. By the time Chastain was setting the ball for her penalty kick, Akers's eyes were riveted to the tube. When the kick went in, the trauma room erupted. Akers, with help, pulled the IVs out of her arms and headed out to the field to celebrate with her teammates and see if she could somehow find her father in the erupting Rose Bowl stands. Her body was dead. The rest of her had never felt more alive.
In the weeks and months since that game Akers has found herself talking often about Scurry and Chastain. People want to know if Scurry cheated by taking a step or two forward before each of the Chinese penalty kicks. Clearly Scurry had violated the letter of the rule, which prohibits forward movements before the ball is kicked. In Akers's opinion, though, that does not constitute an ethical lapse. "Part of being a keeper is playing the referee, just like the defense does in any team sport," Akers says. "That's just what Hair was doing. The keeper has to do everything she can to stop the ball. It's the referee's job to make sure she's doing it right. And if the shoe were on the other foot, if the Chinese had stopped one of our penalty kicks by moving forward, I guarantee you we would have said, 'Hey, she cheated.' Every last one of us." In the world of men's sports this is known as rallying behind your guy. In women's sports it may now be called the same thing.
Then there's Chastain and her nominal disrobing. The way her celebration has been talked about, you would have thought she was a streaker. Her little flash dance has been shown again and again, on Letterman, on ESPN, everywhere. As a conversation topic it has amazing legs. "People should get over it," Akers says. "The men do it all the time, and you don't think twice about it. It was just something she did spontaneously. I thought it was great." Anyway, to her teammates, Chastain's most memorable moment—after, of course, the winning penalty kick in the title game—involves the goal she scored against her own team. She booted it in during the quarterfinal win over Germany. Chastain was attempting to pass to Scurry, thinking the goalkeeper was at her normal workstation. She wasn't, and the ball rolled softly into the U.S. net. The memorable part was not so much the goal; own goals happen from time to time. The memorable part came in a team meeting a few days afterward, in which DiCicco showed the shot over and over. The first time it was funny. The second time it was serious. After a while damage was being done. The team could feel Chastain's discomfort. The players said to the coach, "O.K., Tony, we got the point. Thank you!" After the meeting the players gathered around Chastain. It was a bonding moment. The team had many such moments. That's why they played the way they did.