Football: Brandi's last shot thrills America

Women's World Cup: Host nation intoxicated as victory in penalty shoot-out against China secures second triumph
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The Independent Online
IT WASN'T pretty, it wasn't even the best advertisement for the women's game, and macho males will doubtless sneer: "We told you so." Statistics can mislead but they don't lie. The women's World Cup has been played three times and America have won two of them, the second victory coming on Saturday as the US won the 1999 final against China 5-4 on penalties after the match had finished goalless after extra-time.

By the time a light plane flew gently over the Rose Bowl, trailing a banner proclaiming "Let's win, kids", the kids had already done their duty, sending California into a soccer frenzy and making sure, via the penalty shoot-out, that the women's game is here to stay.

For several hours after the extraordinary scenes of jubilation at a stadium which is best known for American football, the silver tickertape that greeted the final whistle on Saturday was still glistening in the afternoon sun. It was as if the stewards had been told to leave it there, just to milk the American success a while longer.

The Fifa president, Sepp Blatter, who presented the trophy, had a smile on his face for the first time after a traumatic week of political in- fighting. After being publicly snubbed by the Asian nations, who walked out of the world governing body's congress last Friday, Blatter needed something to lift his spirits.

His mood was clearly improved by being the only man in the middle of a melee of female celebration. With his hands discreetly placed around the waists of a couple of American players, Blatter looked happy again. For once, he seemed to be thinking, he had got things spot on. Few can argue with that. Nowhere in the world is women's football bigger than in the United States, which only increases the frustration of our own national team missing out. Australia are the only candidates, so far, to stage the next women's World Cup although, given the success of the past two weeks, there are bound to be more.

By then, Michelle Akers will have hung up her boots. More's the pity. Akers was, quite simply, a class above everyone else on Saturday but missed the celebrations because of heat exhaustion. At 33, the aggressive Akers, whose distribution was outstanding, may well have played her last international. Her loss to the team will be immense.

Indeed, once Akers, who outshone Mia Hamm, the glamour queen of American soccer, had gone off at the end of normal time, China had by far their best period. They should have won the match with an extra-time golden goal, but Yunjie Fan's header was headed off the line by Kristine Lilly.

"Kristine is one of the best players in the world," said a relieved US coach, Tony DiCicco. "She somehow always finds ways to win games for us, whether in attack or defence."

Akers, however, was the real heroine, the engine room in midfield which, for 90 minutes, pumped out more energy than the rest put together. "Every time I watch her, I shake my head in disbelief," said fellow midfielder Julie Foudy. "She never ever gives up."

The Chinese , who showed little of the free-flowing football that marked their previous matches, seemed intimidated by the whole occasion. Or perhaps they were simply worn out after four punishing coast-to-coast journeys.

Saturday's victory was particularly sweet for Chuck Blazer, the man credited with raising the profile of women's football in this country. Blazer, general secretary of Concacaf, which covers north and central America, recalls when they had to sew the letters U-S-A on the white shirts that had been hurriedly prepared for the team when they left to play in Italy. That was 14 years ago. Within six years, the Americans were world champions.

"It wasn't so much hand-me-downs, they were men's clothes they had to wear," said Blazer. "We didn't have any budget to speak of in those days but we scraped together to get them to Italy. We had to fly to Milan, then take a five-hour bus journey."

Times have, irrevocably, changed. Now there are plans for a world tour next year, taking in Egypt, South Africa, Israel and Egypt. "We want to spread the gospel of sports equity," said Hank Steinbrecher, the secretary general of the US Soccer Federation.

Quite what they will make of Brandi Chastain is another matter. Chastain is the most risque member of the American squad. After scoring the decisive spot kick in the final, she took off her shirt to reveal a black sports bra. Recently she appeared on The David Letterman Show after being photographed in a magazine wearing nothing but a strategically placed football.

Chastain admits that women's football, for all America's obsession with sexual equality, is not only about the game. "There are people who come purely for the soccer and those who come purely for the event," she said. "And there are those who come because they like us, to look at us. Those are three great reasons. I don't need to go further than that."

UNITED STATES (4-4-2): Scurry; Fawcett, Overbeck, Sobrero, Chastain; Akers (Wahlen, 91), Foudy, Lilly, Parlow (MacMillan, 57); Milbrett (Venturini, 115), Hamm.

CHINA (4-4-2): Gao Hong; Wang Liping, Fan Yunjie, Wen Lirong, Bai Jie; Liu Ailing, Liu Ying, Zhao Lihong (Qui Haiyan, 114), Pu Wei (Zhang Ouying, 59); Jin Yan, Sun Wen.

Referee: N M Petignat (Swit).