WEMBLEY, England – The game was nearly as grand as the stage, in doubt until the last seconds and so important that the winning country’s commander in chief was following it back home. Across town, Usain Bolt was doing in London what he did in Beijing, but for 80,203 people at Wembley Stadium and the two best women’s soccer teams in the world, this was their Olympic moment.
Soccer always has been little more than an afterthought at the Olympics, but this was different. This was the U.S. and Japan before the biggest Olympic soccer crowd – a flag-waving, cheery throng that made noise from the beginning to the end – and this was a night to celebrate no matter which country took home the gold.
Carli Lloyd and Hope Solo made sure it was the Americans winning their third straight soccer gold, with Lloyd doing all the scoring for the U.S. and Solo – perhaps the best female goalie to play the game – batting away almost everything aimed her by an increasingly desperate Japanese squad. The final was 2-1 Thursday night, and then the fun really began for a team that has lived for the past year with the pain of a shootout loss to Japan in the World Cup final.
They leaped in the air in jubilation, ran in search of teammates to hug, and grabbed U.S. flags anywhere they could find them.
A few minutes later the U.S. players stood together on the gold medal podium, singing the national anthem. Then they lingered on the field, as if they didn’t want the moment to end.
Hard to blame them. On a beautiful British summer night, it was magical.
“Eighty thousand people for a women’s final?” Lloyd said. “That says a lot about women’s sports. When we go back home it’s going to be bigger.”
Unfortunately, recent history says otherwise. A full stadium and President Barack Obama following the game while on a campaign swing in Colorado notwithstanding, women’s soccer is still facing a very uncertain future.
This wasn’t Brandi Chastain ripping her shirt off in celebration in a 1999 World Cup win at the Rose Bowl that everyone thought would inspire millions of little girls in America to play the game. We’ve been there already, only to find out that big games don’t always translate into big things.
It will be three years before the U.S. women get a chance to play a match that means this much again, four years before they will defend their Olympic title. The excitement of the Olympics match will abate as did the buzz from last year’s World Cup, though the same problems that have bedeviled the women’s game for the last 13 years will remain.
“The attention they’re getting here may just be what the women’s game has needed,” said Julie Foudy, who was on the 1999 World Cup team and two gold-medal winning Olympic teams. “But we thought that way in ’99. We thought we had it made then.”
Lloyd had lost her starting job before the Olympics, only to get it back when Shannon Boxx was hurt, and she took advantage of her opportunity. She scored the winning goal for gold against Brazil in Beijing and she scored both American goals Thursday night, one on a header in the first half and the other with her foot early in the second. Solo made sure the U.S. stayed on top with several saves.