The Girls of Summer
by Jere Longman
It's no small achievement that Longman, a sportswriter for The New York Times, backs up the bold claim of his book's subtitle in this well-written story of the 1999 World Cup champions. Women's soccer had been viewed with ambivalence on these shores until last summer, when "for the first time," Longman writes, "Americans on a large scale felt...the rosary-clutch, the chest ache, that makes this game the athletic heartbeat of nearly every other country in the world."
With enough new behind-the-scenes reporting to satisfy the most inveterate soccer fan, Longman gives a detailed account of the gut-busting final between the U.S. and China, pausing throughout to reflect on the context of the event: its place in relation to Title IX, the role of race in U.S. soccer and the sexualizing of the U.S. team. Interspersed are profiles of the players. There's Brandi Chastain, the ready-for-stardom defender nicknamed Hollywood; Tiffeny Milbrett, the prolific yet overshadowed striker; and Mia Hamm, the conflicted star who responds to Longman's appreciation of her candor by saying, "You mean because half the time I go out there I think I suck?"
The most fascinating passages address how World Cup '99 affected teams from other countries that participated. After one North Korean player discovered she could visit a dentist for free, the majority of her teammates complained of dental ailments as well. The Nigerian star Mercy Akide returned to the U.S. after the tournament and enrolled at Milligan College in Tennessee, where she played last season. Longman visited China to speak with the runners-up and blasts the myth that the Chinese players were "a paper chain of dolls, identical, unchanging, as mass produced as Andy Warhol's soup cans." We hear at length from tournament MVP Sun Wen, a poetry-writing environmentalist; goalkeeper Gao Hong, a Christian in an officially atheist land; and Liu Ying, the tragic figure who missed the fateful penalty kick that determined the winner.
Longman's book isn't perfect—he takes too many gratuitous shots at U.S. men's soccer—but his testimony about the World Cup's enormous impact is persuasive. Women's soccer still has a long way to go to gain full international respect, but the Chinese women are now outdrawing the pro men's league in one of their country's provinces. The European governing body, UEFA, has organized a women's pro club tournament to rival the U.S. league, WUSA, that launches next April. Longman even quotes Henry Kissinger extolling President Clinton's use of the World Cup to advance Sino-U.S. relations. Ultimately there's no denying that the U.S. women have changed how we look at gender and sport in this country. The subtitle of Longman's book will only become more and more prescient as time goes on.