The hard core was there. See the grown man shivering in his shorts and black sports bra? But the casual fans who filled stadiums for the 1999 Women's World Cup were absent from the women's soccer final in Sydney Football Stadium, a 42,000-seat venue that was almost half empty when Norway—a nation of 4.5 million—gamely kicked off against the indomitable U.S. for a gold medal. The boutique crowd—the boys in the MAMA MIA body paint, the girls in the CHICKS RULE T-shirts—came to see greatness and got it. "That," Brandi Chastain would say, "was the best game I have ever been a part of."
The statement was arresting for any number of reasons. Chastain, after all, made the black sports bra a staple of male soccer supporters when she shed her shirt in front of 90,000 fans at the Rose Bowl last summer following her decisive penalty kick in the U.S. victory over China, an epoch-making event in women's sports. More to the point, this was Norway, supported by a few thousand fans in Hagar the Horrible helmets, a team the Yanks had easily dismissed, 2-0, in the opening round of this very Olympic tournament. A respected international power? The scoreboard at Sydney Football Stadium displayed, whenever Norway made a substitution, the flag of Sweden.
Chastain's proclamation would have sounded preposterous in the fifth minute of this match, when Mia Hamm dribbled around Norway's captain—forearm-shivering her to the ground in the process—then crossed to Tiffeny Milbrett, who hit an open net for a 1-0 lead. U.S. keeper Siri Mullinix didn't face a shot on goal until the 43rd minute, when Norway was awarded a corner kick. As U.S. coach April Heinrichs had boasted earlier in the week, her team hadn't given up a goal on a corner in 37 games this year. Until, that is, Gro Espeseth headed this corner in with her face. Suddenly, just before halftime, the match became women's soccer at its best: as brutally exciting as the men's game, and with fewer ponytails.
Then it got better. Norway's coach, Per-Mathias H�gmo, wore shiny sweatpants and a blue T-shirt. He dressed like everyone you've ever sat next to on an airplane. H�gmo the Horrible spent the entirety of the second half—an exhausting exchange of struck goalposts and sliding tackles-running his fingers through his near-barren scalp and puffing out his cheeks in exasperation. He looked thunderstruck in the 78th minute when midfielder Unni Lehn sent a 40-yard cross to the U.S. goalmouth and Ragnhild Gulbrandsen punched it in with her noggin. Just like that, his team was leading the U.S. 2-1, but 12 agonizing minutes were left before Norway's own version of a Miracle on Ice was on ice.
In the 90th minute an overzealous fan ran onto the pitch, climbed the right goalpost, and, to the profound bewilderment of keeper Mullinix, flounced into the netting on top of the goal, as if it were a hammock. Security rousted the fellow from atop the net before play returned to the U.S. end, but his heroic act of slackerdom—attempting to nap on an active Olympic playing field—seemed to say to the U.S. squad, "No worries, mate."
There really were none: With but 15 seconds left in injury time (the time tacked on to the end of a match to account for stoppages in play) Hamm unhurriedly dribbled into the right corner and made a lovely pass across the goalmouth: Kristine Lilly leaped to head the ball but missed it completely. Beyond her the 5'2" Milbrett likewise leaped. She conked the ball with her coconut into the lower left corner of the goal as time—and very nearly H�gmo—expired.
But 12 minutes into overtime a Norway substitute would nudge the ball beneath the outstretched left arm of Mullinix: Forward Dagny Mellgren had entered the pitch as the Swedish flag fluttered on the scoreboard, and she left it the most famous woman in Norway. By ending what may be the greatest women's soccer match ever played, she sent a silent message to little Norwegian girls impatient for heroines of their own: We're on our way. Keep your shirts on.