Sometime today, 21 young women will walk off their international flight at LaGuardia, Newark, or JFK, probably whichever one was cheaper. They will collect their luggage and walk off an 8 hour flight flooded with regret, recollections and a nostalgic sense of accomplishment. Perhaps they are greeted with a smattering of polite applause or even a few cheers of surprised, unsuspecting travelers as they tread out to the terminal. At the baggage claim, maybe even a few friends and relatives smile and wave hand-crafted signs that provides a small, yet comforting welcome that possibly can erode part of their hurt. Then they stuff their bags into their SUVs or maybe even a team bus and return to a homeland of harsh reality with about as much fanfare as a returning Vietnam Veteran.
They'll return and fade into obscurity for another four years. As little as 48 hours ago, for one, brief shining moment these girls had captivated as much of our attention, imagination, and hearts as we cared to provide in a country's shocking meager reward to the endless hours of sacrifice, sweat, tears, training and preparation they willingly underwent for a few weeks of our entertainment. The 2011 United States Women's World Cup team are officially "Runner's Up" in the greatest event in the world's greatest sport, but displayed such indomitable spirit fused with the competitive willpower that for a brief time, enthralled a nation of even the most casual soccer fans. Each of these individuals are champions in their own right - an unofficial title that is merited, richly deserved and cannot be vacated. As for the nation known as the United States of America, itself, will be formally chronicled in the annals of history as runners-up to Japan and rightfully so. We never deserved a champion like them.
It should have been their stage. Disney could have never scripted a better storyline so egregiously Hollywood, so picture-perfectly clichÃ©. For three weeks in Germany the rest of the world watched an intoxicating athletic spectacle of drama, suspense, thrill and simultaneous joy and heartbreak while our country remained abstractedly negligent of the transcendent, ongoing spectacle that was just a channel-click away from "America's Got Talent." In a tournament bursting with flair, sophistication, competitiveness and parity that was the anti-thesis of all that's supposed to be wrong in international play, completely devoid of flopping, corruption and abysmal officiating that plagues the men's side this was a World Cup that could potentially stand as a landmark in the renaissance of women's sport (though it probably won't).
After the quarterfinal match against Brazil, with a Rapino laser cross to the most lethal-forehead in sports, Wambach for an extra-time equalizer that would rival any buzzer-beater or last-second field goal in sports history, there was scarcely a cheer from the "Land of the Free, Home of the Brave." The CNN and Fox News websites had left their home webpage without so much as a mention, even a full day later. In a magical moment that should have captivated a country and would send most nations celebrating in the streets, we resumed our mundane lives, completely unaware of the drama that had just unfolded five time zones away. In a match where a team playing short-handed against a foe who boasted the world's best player and had punished them 4-0 not four years ago in the previous World Cup, somehow won in dramatic fashion worthy of a Hollywood script. These 21 young women who showcased grit, resilience, and determination in exemplifying every trait that has historically defined us as a nation had the misfortune of playing in a week where an attractive Florida mother accused of murdering her child stole their spotlight, in what would normally have been a relatively obscure trial had Nancy Grace and the mainstream media, not gluttonously devoured every instant of it.
We owe these women more than a 30 second commercial or a spot on the Today Show. Our interest and investment should extend beyond forwarding pictures of Alex Morgan or enrolling our daughters into a youth league. It was only 12 years ago when the last American women's reawakening led by Mia Hamm and Co. crashed and burned in the form of the WUSA. For three weeks in Germany, for the rabid fans that do give enough of a damn to follow our patriots with the fanfare they merited, this World Cup seemed eerily familiar, yet different. It was a grandiose conclusion to a magnificent stage for the world's most popular game. And even though it ended in bitter defeat to a team that one couldn't even dislike, in a game where victory was literally just minutes, seconds away in a match that saw our heroes outplay their counterparts for most of the contest, anyone who cared to view the match couldn't help but feel a sense of patriotism - a rich swelling and swirling emotions of hurt, anxiety, empathy and national pride. In the end, it won't matter. For whatever America's inexplicable reason, we are not a soccer nation. In a culture where our squirrel-like attention span has been engrossed with Tweets from the Kardashians, IKEA catalogs and iPhone apps, this latest group of America's darlings will fade like a summer crush, pushed aside and forgotten as soon as NFL lockout ends or the debt ceiling is resolved, whichever happens first.
If there was justice, our country would flock in droves to support these girls. This is an era where NBA superstars cannot even find an ounce of devotion to suit up for the Olympics, cowardly hiding behind the fantasy pretenses of "safety concerns." This is an era where barely a week passes when an athlete who collects the average person's salary in a week, is arrested for declining a cab fare when leaving a club wasted, a Hall of Fame shortstop refuses to play in an All-Star game where fans have voted for his humble presence, coaches in our collegiate realm arrogantly commit numerous violations in forms of car payments and tattoos, while two major sports have locked themselves out of playing, waging a inexplicably self-centered war of billionaires versus millionaire while the fans lay victims as collateral damage. Yet we still show up in masses, think nothing of shelling out $100 tickets, we embroider their names on the back of our custom jerseys, and claim ignorance and forgiveness for their legal transgressions rather than a simple plea to follow the law, as role models for our children and ourselves. All the while, these 21 noble warriors train year round in the thin airs of Denver, 99 degree California heat, and Philadelphia cold in outdated practice facilities and dilapidated stadiums, without seven figure endorsements, free Gatorade or even basic equipment since their league is almost bankrupt.
They should be our idols. Yet they have the unmerited misfortune of choosing to play a game we have never embraced. They play for the love of the game and love of their country. While the rest of the world marvels in the aesthetic beauty of a perfectly placed corner-kick, a diving save by Hope Solo, the effervescent force of Lauren Cheney charging forward on a break or a flawlessly executed counterattack, we yawn at low scores and remain unconscious of what we ignorantly perceive as confusing rules, strange substitution patterns and puzzling pool play. While we choose to be entertained by towering, chemically-enhanced home runs, slam dunks by seven foot Goliaths that seem barely human and watch steroid-fueled, tattooed gladiators concuss themselves to early deaths in the form of three yard runs from scrimmage our glorious representatives fight, claw, and dance their way to victory for the unrequited love of a country that considers their sport mundane, and doing it all with smiles that could captivate a mob and with sublime skill normally reserved for YouTube videos.
But the steps back home will not come without challenge or adversities. When the last re-runs on Sportscenter fades, the realities will begin to rise again. While the London Olympics are little more than a year away, their league is on life support. For all of the Title IX provisions and gender based lawsuits, it is notoriously difficult to live a life as a female athlete. In less than a week, America's Girls of Summer will be back to playing in a six team league that draws less than 4,000 fans, pays enough for them to be considered lower-middle class and who's primary sponsor is MagicJack. And the overnight fans will disappear again. A bandwagon nation that managed to pick up LeBron James, Ellen, Lil Wayne, Tom Hanks and even our own president in forms of feign self-promotion disguized as fandom, they will all go back to caring less instead of shameless pretending to promote a team and a sport they know nothing about. The Boston Bruins, the Dallas Mavericks and the Green Bay Packers received parades and bonuses. The 2011 World Cup Women's Soccer team will make a Letterman appearance and maybe receive a few free pairs of cleats.
Not that it was all for naught. There is still a rabid, knowledgeable minority of our population who recognize the splendor and significance of what these heroes just accomplished. Perhaps in a backwoods Minnesota town, a Houston suburb or a Chicago rec club, a small girl pretends to be a Abby Wambach, a Christie Rampone or an Alex Morgan as they kick a youth-sized soccer ball into a goal, laying the next chain in the line of a program with proud success and rich tradition. They will continue play despite our unawareness, not for money, fame or the chance to date a celebrity but because it's what they have always done and have been trained to do - for love of the game and love of country. But for those millions here who never cared about them, never cared to watch them or never understood them, perhaps justice was served in the end. They will never truly appreciate the magnitude of what they accomplished and the thrilling three weeks with which they transfixed our spirits, even in the form of an alien sport called "soccer."
Something about global competition drives our bandwagon country in a quest for world supremacy. It marries a sort of athletic manifest destiny with the arrogance of American exceptionalism in an insatiable demand for champions, even though we do not deserve one. Well, we received a champion anyway in the form of these fabulous, spirited young women who proudly wore our nation's colors, representing a homeland that never cared. It is just a shame that no one cared to notice.
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