Great athletes are blessed with what seems to be an extra set of senses. They have a sense of the action, usually displayed as a feel for where the ball is and where it's going, and a sense of pace, for conserving energy and then putting on a burst at the proper moment. Put those two qualities together in an athlete and they form what's commonly called a sense of drama. Most people and maybe even most readers of the sports pages don't know who Mia Hamm is, but she is a great athlete, and a week ago last Sunday she came to Chicago and put on a display that proved it. Hamm, for those not in the know, is the star of the U.S. women's soccer team. Soccer is a game played on so vast a field that it tends to look impersonal and the players anonymous, so greatness can be a hard quality to discern even in its biggest stars; in soccer, no single player can take over a game the way a Michael Jordan can in basketball. But this only made Hamm's performance more impressive, especially as she had just recovered from a hamstring injury.
Hamm came into Soldier Field for an exhibition match against Germany, in advance of next year's women's World Cup tournament here in the United States. And with 13,107 fans watching her every move--not to mention the 11 German opponents on the field--she scored a hat trick, her 90th, 91st, and 92nd goals in international competition. How often does a great athlete perform up to the hype and expectations? Jordan aside, not often enough.
Her first goal was the only one I needed to see as far as proving her greatness was concerned. She had fallen down on the attack and was trailing the German defenders upfield, just trying to get back in play. Like any number of hockey greats one can mention, Hamm has an effortless and seemingly lazy demeanor on the field; she spends most of her time ambling. Yet no sooner had she caught up with the last German defender, Steffi Jones, than the ball was passed back to Jones, who--with Hamm in such sudden proximity--panicked, tripping over it. Hamm pounced on the ball and dribbled in on the German goal. As the other German defenders pursued her, she rolled in a delicate little topspin shot just under the hands of the diving goalie. The whole sequence was a lesson in economy of effort.
This was a delightful occurrence, as up to then, early in the second half, there had been a sour whiff to the soccer-going experience. Local officials--probably the usual Soldier Field bureaucrats working for the Park District--were no doubt more to blame than U.S. soccer officials, but the entire thing was poorly organized. Acting the role of soccer dad--and taking a pass on the final round of the Western Open golf tournament--I took my eight-year-old daughter and her best friend to the game. We picked up our tickets on one side of the stadium, then had to walk all the way to the other side to go in the proper gate. In an attempt to economize on ushers, concessions workers, and cleanup crews, tickets had been sold for only one side of the field, the hot and sunny east side (as all soccer fans and bullfight aficionados know, the preferred side is the shady side). But when it became apparent that one could simply walk around the main aisle of the stadium to get to the shade and, what's more, sit down right behind the players' benches, a general exodus began--though one did have to march all the way back to get a beer or a soda. "They never think," grumbled another soccer dad as we walked our kids around the stadium. Likewise, no thought had gone into the music played during pregame warm-ups; it was a metal-tinged melange including Pat Benatar's "Hit Me With Your Best Shot" and the Rolling Stones' "Start Me Up" that sounded as if it had originally been recorded for use by the 1985 Bears. (One would have expected the Spice Girls or at least the Indigo Girls, if not Sleater-Kinney.)
The national soccer officials weren't totally without fault, however. The $5 programs weren't particular for this game but were in fact a U.S. Soccer Yearbook, with more material on the U.S. men's team--just knocked out of the World Cup in France after three quick and humiliating losses--than on the U.S. women. What's more, the program included no numerical roster, and no roster at all for the German team, not even a day-of-game insert.
But the soccer proper was a delight. We settled down right behind the U.S. bench, close enough to hear the players on the field. (With their high-pitched voices, they sounded like circling chimney swifts as they called to each other.) The play was precise and remarkably intense, considering that this was a friendly, the weather was sultry, and the same two teams had played to a 1-1 tie three days earlier in Saint Louis. The German team seemed more regimented and at first pinned the U.S. team down with some astute defensive play in midfield. Every ambitious U.S. pass seemed to get picked off and directed back toward the U.S. goal. The U.S. players, however, seemed generally more skillful; in fact, thanks to the long-range effects of Title IX, the 1972 regulation calling for colleges to at least try to put women's athletics on an equal footing with men's, the U.S. women--quite unlike their underachieving male counterparts--have developed into one of the strongest soccer teams in the world. In a more elegant and evolved form of hockey's slovenly dump-and-chase attack, the U.S. offense seemed based on long passes down the wings, and midway through the first half one of those connected and led to a goal. Julie Foudy ran down a long pass along the right wing, then centered it into the goal box. Kristine Lilly captured it with her chest, juked her way around the nearest German defender, and booted it into the net for the only score of the first half.
Most--though certainly not all--of the fans in attendance were girls, and Hamm's first goal, which put the U.S. up 2-0 early in the second half, gave them everything they had come for. "Mia! Mia!" they cheered, my two girls included. Hamm scored again almost immediately, and that seemed not to quell but to raise expectations. It was a nice goal. The U.S. picked off a pass in the German zone to set up a 4-on-3 break. Foudy, in the middle, dribbled in, drew the defense, then passed wide to the right to Hamm for an open shot. This time she smashed it in with authority, then did a little slide in the grass with her arms held up. The fans loved it, but just as clearly they also started thinking hat trick. They groaned when, moments later, a lead pass to Hamm found her running step for step with the last German defender, and she booted the ball off the far post. Then she was taken down in the box by a German defender, and when the referee made no foul call there was a chorus of boos for one of the few times of the afternoon.
One of the strange phenomena of women's sports is that the fans are reluctant to pour abuse on the players. I certainly was, though my daughter being in the row in front of me probably had more to do with that than the players' sex did. Still, there's no denying the different dynamic at work, different from that of an NBA game or a major-league baseball game or even of college basketball or minor-league baseball, where men are expected to take the abuse and rechannel it into their play. Whether that added pressure will surface under the more intense competition of next year's World Cup remains to be seen. Me, I'm looking forward to finding out; I'll be there, because watching women play soccer was a pleasure.
Yes, it was more pleasant than men's soccer in part because they were women at play, but it was also because they played better soccer than the U.S. men; allow me to insist that the overall distinction is aesthetic rather than sexual. Hamm is a beautiful woman--named one of the 50 most beautiful people in the world by People magazine last year, which the U.S. Soccer Yearbook points out in her brief biography--and she has thin arms and wisps of hair that typically break free of her high ponytail to frame her face. Yet like any great athlete, she commands attention by what she does and how she does it rather than by how she looks standing still. Hamm has an intense gaze, and it's when she bursts down the field at full speed that she's really something to see. Later in the second half, after the Germans had got on the board to make it 3-1, Hamm scored an amazing goal. Tiffeny Milbrett broke clear down the right wing and centered the ball into the goal box. Again a German defender ran step for step with Hamm in an attempt to rein her in. But Hamm got just in front by sliding and extending her left foot. That foot deflected the ball high over the German goalie's head, and it bounced into the net. It was a demanding shot performed with delicacy. Hamm rose, threw her hands to the sky, and fell backward onto the grass as she was mobbed by teammates. That play was the single most beautiful moment of the day.
Hamm was soon removed from the game after a frustrated German player gave her a little extra shove going out of bounds, pitching her into the U.S. bench. U.S. coach Tony DiCicco got tossed by the referee for arguing the play, but no real harm was done, and DiCicco himself said later he'd overreacted. The Germans scored again to make the final 4-2, but after Hamm's third goal the game was never in doubt, and the U.S. women finished strong with Hamm on the bench.
Befitting a match called a friendly, the teams were on good terms at the end. Hamm and Germany's Sandra Spicek, an intense little sad-eyed brunet, were named the two most valuable players and given small loving cups. Spicek filled hers with bottled water and passed it around to her teammates. The Germans formed a line and did the wave for the fans, then crossed the field and did the same for the sunny side. Hamm, limping noticeably, had her hamstring stretched by a coach.
"Hey, you walk like an old man!" yelled one soccer dad.
"You shut your mouth!" chided his daughters sitting in the row in front of him.
After stretching, Hamm came back to the sideline for a TV interview and a brief session with press reporters. All the while the girls were cheering, "We love you, Mia!"
"Hey, forget the press!" yelled leather lungs. "These are your fans!"
Hamm didn't need to be told that. Finishing with the press, she walked over to the stands and signed autographs for all the kids up and down the first row. A couple of other U.S. players signed too, while others stood on the field talking over the game, and some of the German players walked off cramps in bare feet on the turf. Nobody, neither players nor fans, seemed in a hurry to leave. What had begun as a sadly mismanaged event was salvaged by the players, by their grace on the field of play and off.
Is it important for young girls to see women competing at the highest level of sports? As a soccer dad, I think it probably is. And I'd argue it's just as important for any fan--man or woman, age utterly aside--to recognize greatness in athletes both male and female.