By: Dan Rubin
It’s been 48+ hours since the United States Women’s National Team lost the World Cup final to Japan. In the days since, the sports world moved on relatively easily, with top stories featuring professional basketball players planning on playing in Europe and football players gearing up for the end of their labor strife. The seemingly last story about the United States’ failure to capture the trophy came on Tuesday morning when the team returned home.
It could’ve been a watershed moment in women’s athletics history. The USA, without a World Cup win since the epic 1999 clash at the Rose Bowl against China, had a chance to reclaim its mantle as champion and create a new brand of women’s soccer heroes. The names of Akers, Hamm, Foudy, Scurry, and Chastain are long retired and they were about to be replaced in American soccer culture with Boxx, Wambach, Morgan, Rapinoe, and Solo. The torch was ready to be passed, and then, just like that, it vanished.
The Women’s World Cup brought about the drama expected from the men’s side. A year after the US men captivated our society with last-second heroics and late game drama, the women did the same and multiplied it by about a hundred. Their thrilling last-minute comebacks and ability to win under any type of overwhelming odds captivated American society in a way women’s sports have failed to since that ’99 game between the US and China.
That the United States fell short at the end of the run was a shocking surprise, but it hardly underscored their performance. For 120 minutes, Japan found USA’s weaknesses and took advantage. They did what they had to do to win the game, and whether you consider that a Japanese success or United States choke, the fact remains that the trophy did not come back to American but instead went east to the Land of the Rising Sun.
It’s hard to imagine women’s soccer meaning so much in the American sports lexicon. Americans are conditioned to come forward in droves when something begins to capture public attention, and there’s a quest to be better than everyone. When our basketball team faltered in the 2004 Olympics, we blamed the team and the NBA players on it instead of admitting that the rest of the world had started to catch up to the Americans. When the team rebounded in its approach and teamwork to capture gold in 2008, the elation was more about a return to glory and restoration of the kings atop the mountain.
So when the drama of the Women’s World Cup started to capture us, Americans expected our team to step forward and win it all. When they didn’t, the accusations of choking came forward. Maybe the US team just ran out of magic, and Japan, a country desperately in need of more magic, got the lift they needed.
With the outcome solidified in the record books, we need to look at this game in perspective. In terms of cultural importance, we can’t expect the same impact of the 1999 World Cup. That championship spawned a generation of soccer players, both male and female, and it brought not only the WUSA league but also renewed interest in the MLS. The women on that team rank among the most beloved of all time, and they blurred gender lines in terms of popularity and skill.
While the impact of this team won’t be the same, if only because it’s impossible to replicate that squad, the 2011 version of Team USA will remain a legacy of much of the same. We will always remember the names of Hope Solo and Abby Wambach, and a new generation of athletes will be spawned by watching their ability to claw back from any obstacle.
The World Cup Final drew an overnight 8.3 rating, which was double the overnight rating in the United States for Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final. While that’s next to impossible to fathom for Bostonians, women’s soccer dominated one of the most important hockey series of recent memory. That speaks volumes to how these women enveloped American society and how we became united behind, of all things, a woman’s sport with a league that has teams folding due to financial difficulties.
In the end, the game’s lasting impact boiled down to what it means to both nations. To the United States, our citizens recognized this as an opportunity to flaunt our American spirit and American superiority. It gave us a chance to stand tall as Americans and tell the world that we were better. In a World Cup that felt like the officials were out to get them, and at a time when Americans feel isolated amongst the world’s people, it would’ve given us a chance to flaunt that American attitude. It would’ve given us the opportunity to thumb our collective nose at the rest of the world and announce that no matter what’s thrown at us, we can overcome it. We are Americans. We succeed.
To Japan, it became the first glimmer of hope during a time when their country is reeling from catastrophe. The Japanese people feel as if their nation might never recover from the multi-meltdown disaster of March. The rest of the world is viewing Japan as a place where the nation was leveled, and they need our help. Japan was able to announce to the world that they could overcome any obstacle and succeed, thanking everyone for their support at a time when the world’s eyes began to turn elsewhere. The Japanese nuclear plants are pushed off of Page 1, but the World Cup win brought their nation back to the front. To them, it was a chance to stand up and say, “We are going to be okay. We are Japan. We can succeed.”
Two nations. A women’s soccer game. Both announcing to the world that they could overcome any obstacle with the sound resolve that embodies both their people. Yes, the United States lost and Japan won. In the end, who won and who lost can easily be replaced with the feeling of unity. That’s what the World Cup is all about. It took a group of women, 14 years after they first showed us, to make us realize that again.