Beaten and bedeviled, Norwegian women's soccer coach Per-Mathias H�gmo stood on a podium at the Melbourne Cricket Ground last Thursday and pondered the questions: What went wrong? How had the U.S. just smothered H�gmo's 1995 World Cup champions 2-0 in the opening match of the Olympics? "Well," H�gmo said, as though the answer were obvious, "those two early goals from Mia Hamm really did something to us."
Talk about stewed Pers. On and on H�gmo praised Hamm's hegemony, neglecting one small fact: Hamm hadn't scored both goals. What's more, not once in his five-minute-long soliloquy did H�gmo utter the name of the other goal scorer, the American who last week did more than anyone to steer her team safely through the toughest phase of the most treacherous draw in Olympic soccer history.
Her name is Tiffeny Milbrett, and her fame, like her 5'2" frame, is remarkably undersized. How many people know that Milbrett led the U.S. in goals (three) at last year's World Cup, or that she scored the gold medal winner against China at the 1996 Olympics, or that, at age 27, her 80 career goals rank her No. 7 (with a bullet) on the alltime international list? A shifty, skittering dynamo, Milbrett was far and away the Americans' most dangerous player last week Against Norway she scored the first goal and slammed shots off the right post, the left post and the crossbar—a rare shooter's cycle. Then on Sunday, Milbrett's unexpected 35-yard blast won the corner kick mat led to the lone U.S. goal against China, a header by co-captain Julie Foudy. The 1-1 tie left the U.S. needing only a draw against winless Nigeria on Wednesday to reach Sunday's semifinals.
Yet while teammates Hamm, Foudy and Brandi Chastain plug everything from shampoo to sports drinks to beer, Milbrett hasn't signed any major endorsement deals since the World Cup. When The Today Show came calling in Melbourne last week, Katie Couric interviewed the so-called Big Five American players: Chastain, Foudy, Hamm, Kristine Lilly and Carla Overbeck. Milbrett was nowhere in sight. And if you want to buy Milbrett's U.S. jersey at a sporting goods store, good luck. Nike sells only Hamm and Chastain shirts, even though Milbrett is a swoosh-sponsored player from Hillsboro, Ore., a 10-minute jog from Nike's headquarters.
Of course, if women's sports were a meritocracy, then Milbrett's mug would be a fixture on your television screen. It doesn't help her profile that she plays alongside Hamm, the most prolific international scorer in the history of the sport. Then there's "the Anna Kournikova syndrome," as Chastain puts it. "If you're not the most beautiful player or if you don't have a million-dollar smile or if you're not 5'11" and a model size, then even when you do good things, you have to do double," Chastain says. "We've talked about that, and I'll say, 'Millie, you deserve more. You have to know in your heart that you're worthy' She's capable of great things, but she's underappreciated."
It's a shame, really, because the story of Milbrett and her mother would make for a dynamite shoe commercial. At 55, Elsie Milbrett-Parham still competes on Sundays in the over-30 division of Portland's Northwest United Women's Soccer League. A fiber-optic assembly worker, Milbrett-Parham raised Tiffeny and her older brother, Mark, alone. (Tiffeny says she hasn't seen her father since she was a child.) From the time Tiffeny was 10, Elsie would bring her along to soccer practices, often letting her play forward while she was a defender on the opposing team. "We'd go at it," Elsie says. "She loved it when she beat me, and I'd love it if I shut her down." Adds Tiffeny, "I learned the game from her. She's still a darned good player."
According to Milbrett-Parham, it "hasn't been an easy road" since the World Cup for her chronically snubbed daughter. In The Girl of Summer, Jere Longman's recent book on the U.S. women, Milbrett was quoted as saying that she couldn't wait for the most recognizable American veterans to retire, and soon she had some explaining to do. "Everybody was a little taken aback," Milbrett says, "but I also told them, 'I said that well over a year ago, and I definitely don't feel that way now.' A lot of things have changed, and those changes have all happened this year."
Certainly the most striking difference has been new coach April Heinrichs, who took over last January after Tony DiCicco resigned. Milbrett and DiCicco had clashed over her fitness and her game decisions, and Milbrett says she has been liberated under the new regime. "They've given the game back to us," she says.
Evidence of the revolution came during the team's first practice session under Heinrichs, in February, when assistant John Ellis trotted onto the field, placed the ball on the ground and walked silently away. Nobody moved. "Normally when you put the ball down on the ground, that means, Go!" Milbrett says. "To me that was a symbol of how much the team had been relying on the coach to tell us what to do." Milbrett also remembers the coaches saying later that week, "You guys are asking way too many questions. Just play the game!"
Now unshackled, Milbrett has learned to trust her scoring instincts again. "Tiffeny needs great freedom," Heinrichs says. "What we've tried to do is say, 'Players are going to make mistakes, but it's a players' game.' Our job isn't to micromanage every decision they make. Because then players, particularly women, become afraid to make mistakes. And when you get players who are inhibited or fear being criticized, then you don't have a very healthy environment."