Aren’t You the One Who… ?
The following is an excerpt from the book “It’s Not the Glory, the Remarkable First 30 Years of U.S. women’s Soccer.” Click here to purchase a copy
They keep looking over here. By now it’s clear they recognize someone. There are three of them. One guy holds a pole in place while he not-so-secretly glances over at the table in the shade. Another guy connects another pole. It drops on the cement, clangs, rolls, and rattles. They begin again. The third guy is arranging the canopy-thing that will go on top of the poles, that is, if they ever get in place. Can’t really blame them, though. It’s probably not often their day is interrupted by three extremely fit, attractive women—two blondes and a brunette—and one unfit, unattractive guy, lounging around their work site.
Wait, is he coming over here? Really? Is it his break time already? Yep, here he comes. His buddies are trailing behind, letting pole-holder guy take the lead. What’s he thinking? “Three of them, three of us… let’s go boys.” This should be good. What happens next explains it all, everything being talked about at the table in the shade, everything they have accomplished, everything that caught the country by surprise in the summer of 1999.
That was four years ago now. Four years since Americans filled football stadiums to cheer and squeal for the U.S. Women’s national soccer team. Four years since they were on the cover of USA Today, Sports Illustrated, and Time Magazine. Four years since they did Letterman, the Today Show, the White House. It’s been 17 years since they started representing their country in obscurity, travelling to places like Bulgaria, Italy, China, Blaine, Sweden, Chapel Hill, Germany, Norway, Brazil, Costa Rica, Hartford, Greece, Portugal, Australia, Japan, Sanford, Florida, and Carson, California. That’s where they are now: Carson. They are training for their fourth Women’s World Cup, having completed their second Olympics a year ago. A lot has changed, but little is different. There are new players, but the veterans are still leading the way. There is a new coach, April Heinrichs, but she’s a familiar face, an old teammate from ’91.
That’s the topic for the day—the old and the new. Will the culture they created, nurtured, and insisted upon survive? Do the young players understand? Do they get it? “I worry about that sometimes,” said Kristine Lilly, who has represented her country on the soccer field more times—a lot more—than any other man or women. “I hope so.” Lilly, as much as anyone, owns the culture. She is responsible for much of it. “Don’t worry about what you can’t control, and one thing you definitely control is your fitness.” That’s been Lilly’s guide since she was 16, back when she was invited to go to China for the first-ever Women’s World Championship, a tournament to which she brought her Teddy bear, only to have it hung in a stairwell by a teammate. The leader of that lynch mob happens to be her national team coach now.
The old are wiser now. They play the game with the enthusiasm of 18-year-olds but with the experience gained in their 30-plus years. They’ve been around the world, maybe two or three times, and have the pictures to prove it. They’ve seen a lot, experienced a whole lot, and can speak about it with the type of insight and understanding most professional athletes lack or take for granted. Looking back is fun for them. They don’t talk about the play that led to an important goal or personal moments of glory. And any discussion of a medal ceremony is generally confined to how badly they sang the national anthem. They don’t talk about fame or how it has affected their lives, positively or negatively. They just say it’s an honor and a responsibility to have people look up to you. They let you know that when they were young there were very few female athletes to look up to, far fewer female team sport athletes. They have spent the bulk of their lives turning negatives into positives, using the word “choices” instead of “sacrifices,” taking responsibility for their own happiness and not waiting around for others to make them happy. And it’s about to happen right here in Carson, right on the Home Depot Center concourse, a graduate-level class in how to take lemons and turn them into a peach-mango slushy.
Here they come, the three of them putting on their best swagger. The three women have quietly begun to notice. The leader pauses to look over his shoulder, making sure his support system is in place. He actually knows little about support systems. The women are the experts. The culture they created includes a sentence that must be lived by “Play for Each Other.” What exactly does that mean, you might ask? Play for each other? Play to win is easy to explain. Give 110 percent? Everyone knows that. But how do you play for someone else, let alone everyone else on your team? The same question was posed to a group of 14 to 17-year-old female soccer players—What does it mean to play for each other? “Be a good teammate,” was the closest to the truth. Ask this: “How many of you have ever had a really bad day on the soccer field?” Hands go flying up as fast as memories come flooding back of tripping over the ball, ill-timed handballs, and empty nets missed by wide margins. Playing for each other means when a teammate is having a nightmare, you play harder to help her out because you know that when you are having an awful day, your teammate will be there to do the same for you. That’s a support system. That’s how these women live, and it’s what drove them to be at their very best every time they stepped on the field. Because someone may need their help. This poor guy has two semi-reluctant wing men, and he’s about to intrude on three married women. It’s a potential nightmare, and his wing men may not be able to wake him up in time. Still, here he comes.
“You are soccer players, right?” he asks. Not bad for an opening line.
“Yep, we are training for the World Cup here,” answers one of the women.
Then he looks at one of the players. It’s quickly evident that she was his target all along. “You’re the one who took her shirt off, aren’t you?”
Yikes. Going right after it, aren’t you buddy? The question should not have been that surprising. Brandi Chastain has been asked it repeatedly since she drilled the game-winning penalty kick four years ago. Her celebration—ripping off her shirt and waving it over her head as she fell to her knees—was replayed thousands of times on television, recorded on covers of countless major newspapers and magazines, and discussed over and over. Her black Nike sports bra became famous. An autographed version was even auctioned. Ironically, she is dressed right now the same as she was at the end of that game in the Rose Bowl, except her Nike shoes are replaced with flip-flops, and tan lines are where her socks and shin guards go. The sunglasses are a nice touch. She’s working on her tan, while Julie Foudy chooses the shade, and Kristine Lilly attempts to tan one leg at a time, diligently trying to even out the area her socks cover every day in training.
If ever there was a time for a snippy, dismissive reply to a question, this is a prime candidate. Really, who walks up to someone and asks that? Wouldn’t, “Hey, aren’t you the one who scored the winning goal in the World Cup,” have been a better starting point? But it could have been worse. Two years earlier in Melbourne, Australia, at the 2000 Olympics, in the lobby of the Melbourne Hilton 30 or so minutes before U.S. players were available to the media, an Italian journalist, apparently very well-known in his country, where, as you surely know, soccer is much more than a sport, approached a member of the U.S. media. Italy also produced one of the first bona-fide stars of the women’s game—Elisabeth Vignotto, whose all-time goal-scoring record fell to Michelle Akers, which was passed by Mia Hamm, which was passed by Abby Wambach. The Italians played a sophisticated game that taught the Americans some valuable early lessons about the international game, lessons the U.S. used to rise to the top of the world. While Italian women’s soccer was sophisticated, they received more ridicule than support from their society. Soccer was not something women did, period. Cooking, cleaning, raising children, and other womanly activities were how they were to spend their time. Not chasing a ball or “trying to be men.” That fully explained the question he asked.
“Your American team,” the Italian journalist began, “you have a player that strips, yes?” Not quite as adept at turning negatives into positives, the American writer strongly preferred sarcasm. “I’m not sure,” was the reply. “They all make pretty good money now, so I don’t think they are working second jobs.” Confused, he stared as if he was miss-translating in his head. “However, I have seen a few of them with more one-dollar bills than I would consider normal. If I had to guess, If I had to pick one player, I would say it’s probably…” he walked away to pursue his story. His was another in a long line of questions and situations that took attention away from the important aspects of this team, the things that can be learned, or just the things that can be enjoyed, like exciting soccer played by humble athletes. Brandi knew that. She also knew that it may have been poor judgment to pose for Gear Magazine wearing nothing but a smile and holding a very well-placed (or poorly placed depending on your perspective) soccer ball. She was proud of her body, she would say. And she worked her ass off to get it, clearly an exaggeration because her ass was right there, right in plain sight, in Gear Magazine.
Before the 1999 World Cup, the Australian Women’s National Team, in an effort to raise awareness of their team and to raise money to help them continue to leave jobs to train, posed nude for a calendar. And there were very few strategically placed soccer balls. Poor decision. That was the prevailing opinion of female athletes at the time. They weren’t opposed to the nudity, but it had an opposite effect on what they were trying to accomplish. They were, it was said, not viewed as serious athletes. Others saw no harm. Some of Brandi’s teammates disagreed with her choice to pose in a state of undress, but they supported her right to do it, even if they thought it reflected badly on her team and its players. She did it, she said, for herself, and it really didn’t matter what other people thought. She did, however, admit that her choice of publications could have been better.
Okay, this guy is pretty bold. Lilly and Foudy, having turned to see the visitors, turn back both unfazed and unconcerned about his question. Been there, heard that, is their attitude. Foudy says softly, “She gets that all the time.” After a sort pause, she says, “Watch.”
“Yep. That was me,” Brandi says with a tone that leads you to believe her next words will be “thanks for noticing.” We are watching a master at work here. “Were you there that day?” she asks, and just that quickly she has nearly turned it completely around. She turned shirt removal to soccer in five words. After all, the 1999 final was in Pasadena, the Rose Bowl isn’t far from here, and since there were almost 100,000 people in attendance that day, there’s a chance this guy could have been there. Within a few minutes, Brandi knows that he was not in the Rose Bowl that day. She knows his name. She knows he is a soccer fan. Soon they will be talking about the guy’s favorite soccer team. Brandi throws player’s names at him that only a true soccer junkie knows, the type of things you only learn by watching TV channels that show not only the English Premier League, Serie A in Italy, La Liga in Spain, and the German Bundesliga, but also the Uruguayan Second Division, Turkish league matches, and highlights from Scotland.
“She’s really good at that,” says Lilly. “I don’t know how she does it.” Foudy is not surprised, either. In the 1999 U.S. National team media guide, players were asked a series of basic questions. One was to list their favorite actress. Foudy answered “Brandi Chastain.” They also know that no one can sell the game like Brandi. They spent much of their time in the early days trying to convince people come see their games. To skeptics and soccer purists—both of which numbered in the thousands—they said, “Watch us play and decide for yourselves.” They played in front of many empty stands in small stadiums, barely more than family and friends in attendance. Press passes at big events numbered in the teens. Television coverage was non-existent. Even the younger players on the team with them today admit not knowing the U.S. had a women’s national team when they started playing.
It all came together, though, in 1999. The perfect storm of a slow summer pro-sports calendar and a family-friendly, feel-good story about a women’s sports team that treated each other like professionals, like sisters and acted like real people, the kind you see next door, not stepping out of a limo at a nightclub. And it ended with Brandi, twirling her shirt in the air.
Just like that, Brandi was famous. She was in demand, not just for autographs or appearances, but for sound bites and opinions and a whole lot of things she was not qualified to talk about. “It’s the weirdest, most bizarre experience you can imagine,” Brandi explained. “One night you go bed, and when you wake up the next morning, people think your opinion matters more than it ever has, that you are smarter than you’ve ever been. Whatever you do, everyone else should do. I found that very unnerving at times because you become incredibly aware of everything you do. You don’t want to upset anyone, or say the wrong thing. You want to be respectful of everyone. But at the same time, it’s an incredible feeling, because that’s the platform you want for soccer. Now, everyone is going to listen because they asked you. I was like, ‘Okay, now you’re going to hear it.’ That’s the paradox. On one hand, you are kind of shell-shocked by it and very careful, but on the other hand, you have this great opportunity.”
The media and general population saw a different paradox. They saw professional athletes who knew how to behave. In 1999, pro-football player Rae Carruth was charged with murdering his pregnant wife, baseball legend Daryl Strawberry was arrested for drugs, and the U.S. Olympic Organizing Committee was hit with a bribery scandal. That’s just part of the climate the U.S. women entered in 1999. “It’s unbelievable how many people say to us, ‘I can’t believe you care so much,’” said Foudy. “I always think, ‘Of course we do.’ We are just normal people, and it’s funny that they would think we are something else. Why is the persona of the professional athlete so bad? Why are we so refreshing? That’s so sad. People think that just because you are a professional athlete, you are automatically a jerk. Or stupid, self-centered. We’ve been criticized in the past for making it more than just a soccer event, and would say, ‘Well, yeah it is.’ That’s what this team has always been about. We’ve been dedicated to our sport, but we also get the bigger picture. You are making a different in people’s lives—children, families, girls, boys, women.”
The visitors are still here, enthralled by Brandi, who by now knows that the guy has never seen a women’s soccer match. But he is willing to give it a try. He might even buy a ticket for the game a few days away. Why does Brandi bother? Why give these guys the time of day? They are spending an hour with this interview, time they could have to themselves. After all, they have another training session later today. Why do they do it? Because that’s what they do. They sell the game. To Brandi, every conversation is an opportunity. Everyone she meets is a potential fan.
“It happens to her every day,” said Kate Sobrero (Markgraf). “She always handles it very well. Brandi can sometimes take what can be a negative thing, or something that is annoying, and turn it into a positive. She’ll turn it from the shirt thing to women’s soccer. She’ll turn it from ‘She’s the one who took her shirt off,’ to ‘Yeah, but she won the game.’ Granted they remember Brandi as the girl who took her shirt off, but they also remember the reason why. That’s awesome.”
No one except Mia Hamm sold the game like these three women, each in their own way. Foudy could walk unfazed into board rooms and convince corporations to invest. That was not Lilly’s style, however. She was subtle, explaining in simple terms what her team, her teammates, and representing her country meant to all of them. But the job was not over, and it never would be. The 1999 World Cup was a cultural revolution, and the best revolutions, after all, are constant. Who would continue after they retired? The young players in camp with them didn’t have to struggle with part-time jobs. They never had to fly to Europe in a cargo plane to save money. When they went to China now, the flight is not a 52-hour ordeal, like the one the 1991 World Champions endured to get home. Do the youngsters understand what it took to get to this point? Do they know the amount of work it took so they can make a nice living playing soccer? Do they care?
Brandi is finished now. The guys are slowly getting back to work. She turns back to our group and joins in the conversation. After all, the comments from our conversation will be printed for people to read, and there is still work to do, stadiums to fill, fans to be made. That’s when you understand. For Brandi and her teammates, the job will never end. And that’s because it’s not a job. It’s a passion.
“What we did transcended generations,” Kate said. “I think that’s why it is so special, because a lot of different generations witnessed it together. Everybody has a story about where they were. The best thing about that is having them all come up to us later and tell us their stories.”