Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The Beautiful Game, Beautiful Heartbreak

After Abby Wambach's marvelous header saved the Lady Nats' World Cup lives last weekend, almost everyone I knew—myself included—believed that this World Cup belonged to a team of destiny, a team of indomitable will.

We were all right. We just had the team wrong.

Disappointing (to an American supporter) outcome notwithstanding, Sunday's Women's World Cup final showed everything that is great about soccer. It's a game of sustained tension, where the lack of goals is what makes it exciting—because at any moment, something remarkable can happen. Something exhilarating when it goes your way, something devastating when it goes against you. In no other sport—with the arguable exception of hockey—can fortunes change so dramatically so quickly. No other sport delivers the thrill ride, the joy, the heartbreak quite like soccer.

(And, oh by the way, it's a sport where the women's game is as fast and as physical—if not moreso—than the men's game. Unless you're Brazilian, diving has no place in the women's game.)

When we look back at this Women's World Cup in a few years, the real disappointment will not be that the American women fell short. If there's a disappointment, and hopefully there won't be ... but if there is one, it will be if what the American—and Japanese, and French, and German, and Swedish—women did over the last couple weeks failed to inspire a sustained American interest in soccer. Those of us who bang the drum for the sport simply do not grasp what keeps it from breaking through. Perhaps it's the lack of a storyline.

But now there's one to build on: Redemption. In six months, the Lady Nats will descend on Vancouver, Canada, for the CONCACAF Olympic qualifying tournament. Eight teams will vie for two spots in the London 2012 Games. I don't know what the U.S. women's roster will look like for Olympic qualifying—that's a subject for people much more soccer-savvy than I to discuss—but I do know they should feel like they're on a mission. And so should we, as fans.

Will the U.S. claim Olympic Gold in London? It's far from assured, maybe even unlikely with the likes of France, Germany, Brazil, and, yes, the non-fluke World Cup champs Japan all sure to be in the mix. But I hope the U.S. Women's National Team takes us on a ride that comes even close to what the last couple weeks have been like.

Who knows? Maybe their quest for redemption can get this whole soccer thing to catch on even more than a victory Sunday might have done.