World Cup was a magical event
Disney would never have green-lighted this script. Twenty-first century audiences, raised on a steady diet of comic book fare, are too worldly, too jaded to buy into a storyline so egregiously Hollywood. After all, this was a tale of nevers. Never before had Japan beaten the U.S. in 25 attempts; never before had the U.S. failed to win a World Cup match in which it scored first; and never before had the Americans failed to clear the last hurdle in the Women's World Cup once they reached it.
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The final score line will read Japan 2 (3) U.S. 2 (1), but in one of those gloriously rare moments in sports, it didn't matter which team won and which one lost.
You can talk all you want about Alex Morgan's cool, predatory strike following Megan Rapinoe's defense-shredding pass, Aya Miyama's fortuitous but well taken equalizer, Morgan's laser cross to the most lethal forehead in sports, Abby Wambach, Homare Sawa's seeing-eye 117th minute Lazarus job executed with the kind of sublime skill normally reserved for YouTube videos. You can argue about substitution patterns, penalty taking decisions, Solo's left knee and the vagaries of fortune.
But none of that matters. What we should remember today is how uplifting a great athletic event can be.
Sunday's final was a fitting capstone to the best, most competitive Women's World Cup ever played. As heartwarming a backstory as Japan brought into the tournament -- team of destiny, looking to provide some joy to a country ravaged by the devastating tsunami and earthquake this past March -- it wasn't the global response to the tragedy that won the World Cup for the Japanese. No, it was a magnificent display of resilience and fortitude, long considered indigenous American traits, that helped them overcome two seemingly insurmountable leads during the taut, pulsating 120 minutes of open play. And then, when the Nadeshiko were faced with the daunting task of scoring from the spot against the world's best goalkeeper, Hope Solo, they fell back on their greatest strength -- technique. Yes, PKs are an excruciating test of nerve, but they also rely heavily on the players' ability to place the ball accurately and authoritatively out of the keeper's reach. Yet again, as they had done all tournament, the Japanese proved that they are the most highly skilled players in women's soccer.
At the same time, we should not forget the remarkable tenacity of the Americans, whose indomitable spirit and engaging personality captivated a nation of casual women's soccer fans. Their thrilling run is even more impressive given their uncharacteristically fraught path to the final: an unheard-of four defeats in the past year, including failing to top their group for the first time in WWC history and squeaking into the tournament by dint of Morgan's heroics in a play-in doubleheader.
We must also salute the flair and sophistication of the French, the ball wizardry of the Brazilians -- when they weren't flopping and writhing -- and the relentless drive of both the German and Swedish.
Much like the Spanish national team (otherwise known as Barcelona and Four Others) has its male counterparts across the globe re-examining the way it raises, trains and displays its talent, Germany 2011 should be remembered as the coming-out party for elegant, creative soccer in the women's game. In almost every way, it has been a magical tournament.
What would be truly Potteresque is if this Women's World Cup could somehow stand as a soccer Rosetta Stone for the men. With a little less diving, playacting, cynicism and a lot less Sepp Blatter, the game at large is capable of creating this kind of compelling drama. For three glorious weeks, more and more of us ducked out of work early to behold the exquisite control of Sawa, the dazzling skill of France's Louisa Necib, the emphatic finishing of Sweden's Lisa Dahlqvist and, of course, the terrifying aerial presence of Wambach.
For more from David Hirshey, check out his columns on all things soccer.
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Debates about simulation (except where Brazil was concerned), video technology and corruption joyously disappeared into the ether and, when compared to the Copa America -- a tournament full of intrigue yet marked by Brazil and Argentina's disappointing play -- the Women's World Cup may have given us the best soccer summer since Brandi Chastain did for sports bras what George Foreman did for infomercial grill sales.
We owe these women a lot more than a David Letterman pat on the back, or a dose of droll Jon Stewart wit. Our economic devotion to their sport should reach beyond downloading pictures of Hope Solo and peroxiding our hair a la Rapinoe. It was only 11 years ago that women's soccer tried to parlay the incredible run of '99 into a full-fledged professional league, the Women's United Soccer Association, only to see that effort crash and burn within three dispiriting seasons.
Its latest incarnation, Women's Professional Soccer, is currently on life support and in need of more than a new set of defibrillator paddles. In the past year alone, two teams folded because of payroll woes and several others required bailouts to survive, leaving just six clubs to compete in the 2011 season.
The abiding hope was that a U.S. World Cup title would trigger a renewed investment in the league, where all but one of the national team members play their club ball. Instead, a source within the league tells me that a team's salary cap, already a paltry $600,000, is being slashed to around $350,000 and with it the salaries of all but the glam players such as Wambach and Solo (who earn in the vicinity of $150,000). Things are so dire that the MagicJack, the team that features the most national teamers, is seriously considering transferring ownership of the franchise to Solo, Wambach and U.S. captain Christie Rampone.
In anticipation of winning the World Cup, the league had scheduled a game this coming Wednesday night between the MagicJack and the Western New York Flash in Rochester, Wambach's hometown. More than 9,000 tickets have been pre-sold, which would make it the largest crowd in WPS history -- and about three times what a normal WPS match draws.
All those overnight fans (we're looking at you, Tom Hanks, LeBron, Ellen, Lil Wayne, etc.) who jumped aboard the U.S. bandwagon before the wheels fell off on Sunday now have a chance to prove that this 2011 Summer of Soccer Love wasn't just another crush that fades when sleepaway camp ends.
The U.S. women will be back next summer for the Olympics, but without a league, the Americans will face an even more formidable challenge than they did against a Japan side striving to inspire a recovering nation. And that's a movie that nobody wants to see.
David Hirshey has been covering soccer for more than 30 years and has written about the sport for The New York Times, Time, ESPN The Magazine and Deadspin. He is the co-author of "The ESPN World Cup Companion" and played himself (almost convincingly) in the acclaimed soccer documentary "Once in a Lifetime."
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2011 Women's World Cup
2011 champion: Japan
Topics: Women's World Cup