August 25, 2004

U.S. Women Face Brazil in Olympic Final

Aug. 25, 2004

ATHENS, Greece (AP) - The end of the long goodbye is finally here for the Fab Five of the U.S. women's soccer team. Despite the moment, they can't afford to be misty-eyed at kickoff. They want to end their time together as world champions, a title they haven't been able to claim in five years, but a gritty Brazil team stands in the way in Thursday's Olympic gold medal game. "Right now, my concentration is on this game,'' Mia Hamm said. "And it has to be.'' Hamm, Julie Foudy, Joy Fawcett, Kristine Lilly and Brandi Chastain are the last remnants of the 1991 World Cup team, a group that helped a sport grow from ragtag obscurity to a legit place on the international stage in less than a decade. Hamm, Foudy and Fawcett are retiring from the national team, and the end isn't far off for the other two. "I'll miss being here with these players,'' said Hamm, the game's all-time leading scorer and most recognizable face. "And learning from them, and growing and experiencing the greatest of times and the worst of times.'' Foudy, in fact, might have already played her last game. Her status is uncertain after spraining her ankle in the semifinal victory over Germany. The game will be played on a knife-edge of feeling. The team wants the emotions of the day to take them to the gold, not get in the way. Managing that delicate balance is coach April Heinrichs, who again will appeal to the youngsters to send Hamm and Co. out in style. "In order for us to come out ahead, if we play as a team, if we play for each other, and if we both love and are serving these players who are playing in their final game, then I think things will come together for us,'' Heinrichs said. The Americans dominated the sport throughout the 1990s, winning the 1991 and 1999 World Cups and the 1996 Olympic title, but their success prompted other nations to invest in women's soccer for the first time. Those countries are catching up; Norway won gold four years ago in Sydney, and Germany won the World Cup on U.S. soil last year. Brazil is another emerging women's program, one that has fought for attention in the shadow of the country's five-time World Cup champion men's team. The mayor of the poor Sao Paulo suburb of Osasco, home of star player Cristiane, is expecting thousands of people to watch Thursday's game on two huge televisions he has installed in the streets, the type of scene usually reserved for the men. Brazil gave the Americans their toughest challenge of these Olympics, dominating them in the scoreless first half of a first-round game last week. Fortunate not to be trailing by a couple of goals, the U.S. team rallied in the second half for a 2-0 victory. This week, Brazil's players said their strong early showing in that game has given them hope they can beat the U.S. team for only the second time ever. The other legacy from that game is coach Rene Simoes' accusation that the Americans tried to deliberately hurt his players with rough fouls in the second half. The Americans say they weren't as rough as the Brazilians. They also know the rematch could get nasty. "It's not the first time they've talked like that,'' Foudy said. "They can come hard - they always do. But at the same time, you can use that against them. They come so hard, they're easy to beat.'' Win or lose, there are certain to be tears amid the final hugs as the American players leave the field. After 17 years in the international game, Hamm wants to start a family with her new husband, Chicago Cubs shortstop Nomar Garciaparra. Foudy is also thinking about kids, but she expects to remain active in social and political issues. Fawcett already has three children to raise. Chastain says she'll keep playing "as long as they let me,'' but she is 36 years old and is unlikely to last until the next World Cup in 2007. Lilly, who has played in more international games than any man or woman, has already said she won't make it to 2007 - and maybe even to next week, for that matter. "Who knows?'' Lilly said. "I'm so excited for Thursday's game. I just really want that to finish, and then if it suddenly it hits me that I'm done, I'm done.'' And when it's done, the Fab Five will have secured their place in history, even if they walk away with silver. "Their achievement at the highest level of this game helps all of us know on a daily basis how impactful these players have been,'' Heinrichs said. "I'm not sure we can measure it, to be honest, other than to say Foudy and Lilly and Hamm and some of the others have put women's soccer in the forefront of everyone's consciousness. "They have raised the respect for female athletes. You can go back to virtually every milestone that we've crossed in the women's game and credit these players.''