Wednesday, December 08, 2004

 

Always a champion

The queen of the pony-tailed hooligans plays her last international match tonight.
Mia Hamm, Soccer Star, to Retire Tonight

By JERE LONGMAN

In the spring of 1998, Mahin Gorji became the first female sportswriter allowed into Iran's national soccer stadium since the country's Islamic revolution of 1979. As she spoke to an American reporter in the open press box, Gorji ignored bits of food tossed at her in disgust.

A year later, Gorji followed the 1999 Women's World Cup through satellite television, surfing the Web, rewriting news-agency reports for her sports newspaper in Tehran. Of all the players, she found Mia Hamm particularly intriguing. "I saw when she hit the ball, and I wondered how she can do that," Gorji said at the time. "It seems that her shot is so heavy."

Tonight, after the United States women's national team faces Mexico in Carson, Calif., Hamm will retire, having influenced millions of people, including the young girls who greeted her with the dolphin shriek of adulation and a sportswriter in Tehran, where women are forbidden to play outdoors in shorts and T-shirts.

"I think she is our most important female athlete ever," said Anson Dorrance, who coached Hamm to four N.C.A.A. championships at North Carolina.

She was not a pioneer in the exact sense, as Babe Didrikson and Billie Jean King were. But more than anyone, Hamm represented the possibilities - college scholarships, achievement, recognition, respect, commercial endorsements - available to women after the passage of the gender-equity legislation known as Title IX.

Hamm is only 32, but she retires after having spent 17 years on the women's national team. She is soccer's leading international scorer, male or female, with 158 goals. The world's largest sporting event for women, the 1999 World Cup, was built on her reputation, as was the Women's United Soccer Association, a professional league that followed. She is the best-known soccer player in this country, man or woman.

People magazine once named her one of its 50 most beautiful people. Nike named a building in her honor at its headquarters. Hamm became so recognizable that television commercials would show her image without needing to show her name.

In a commercial that ran before the 1999 World Cup, Hamm provided a memorable moment for women's athletics, flipping Michael Jordan over her hip in a judo maneuver while the music played, "Anything you can do, I can do better."

That may have been her greatest achievement in winning two world championships and a pair of Olympic gold medals - to escape assessment qualified by her gender. Because of Hamm, young girls grow up believing that they can be more successful at soccer than men, not less successful, a rarity in team sports.

"She laid to rest the insult, 'You play like a girl,' " Dorrance said of Hamm.

She was born in 1972, the same year Title IX was. In the early days of the women's national team, Hamm and her teammates played in obscurity, living on candy bars in China and lacking running water and electricity in Haiti. They remained convinced that, if people would only pay attention, the national team had something worthy to offer.

That became evident during the 1999 World Cup. It began in relative anonymity, and in the space of three weeks, with only moderate news media coverage, it built, on its own validity, into one of the nation's most galvanizing sports moments. Several days before the final, 3,000 people attended a practice, including Tom Brokaw and the actor Karl Malden, surely the first cast member from "On the Waterfront" to watch a women's national team in training.

That was the moment, Hamm said during a telephone conference call on Monday, when she realized that women's soccer had finally begun swimming in the mainstream.

Boys wore Hamm's No. 9 jersey, as did girls. Five years later, it remains the most-watched soccer game in American history. No longer could it be said that people would not watch women's sports in vast numbers.

Shortly after the World Cup victory, a picture of Hamm and her teammates, presenting a jersey to President Clinton, appeared someplace unfamiliar - in Mahin Gorji's sports newspaper in Tehran.

"A picture on the front page of the White House in Iran's main daily sports newspaper," Mehrdad Masoudi, an Iranian-born journalist and former spokesman for the Canadian soccer team, recalled in astonishment at the time. A few years earlier, he said, "That would have been unheard of."
I was always more a fan of Tiffeny Milbrett than Mia, and one can also mention Kristine Lilley, Joy Fawcett, Julie Foudy, Brandy Chastain, and especially Michelle Akers among the other pioneers of women's soccer. But Mia was and is the true icon, and it's not as if she isn't a deserving one. I've been to many a US Women's National Team match (including US-Denmark at Giants Stadium in 1999, which set a record at the site for a non-Pope event). There were, as Longman points out, always dozens of adoring little girls wearing number 9 jerseys screaming "Mia! Mia! Mia!"

To be fair, Ms. Hamm never encouraged or even wanted such adulation. She dealt with it about as well as a shy young woman could. She has been a worthy heroine for her legions of fans. I hope she is able to continue to play competitively - which is another way of saying, I hope the WUSA or something like it is resurrected.
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