ATHENS, Greece - They had played through 90 minutes of regulation time, then 15 minutes of overtime and were now nearly halfway through the second overtime, still tied at 1-1, when Kristine Lilly, one of the oldest members of the U.S. women’s soccer team, took aim at a corner kick against Brazil.
Three other women who had played on the first great team, the one that introduced the nation and the world to the excellence of their game in Atlanta in 1996, were on the field for what would be their last game. They were Mia Hamm, queen of women’s soccer, Julie Foudy and Joy Fawcett. On the bench, having been substituted for in the second half, was their teammate, Brandi Chastain. At the far end of the pitch, watching from her goal crease, was the hero of the 1999 Women’s World Cup, keeper Briana Scurry.
Those who were watching had difficulty believing that the game was still tied and the United States still had a chance to win. The Brazilians were individually more talented and faster than the Americans. Time and again their forwards – all of whom, in the tradition of their country, go by one name - had broken down the American defense for great scoring chances. But Formiga, Pretinha, Marta and Cristiane had converted only the one chance that tied the game in the second half.
They had twice hit the post and another time the side of the net. Their other shots either went wide, high or were gobbled up by Scurry.
But the individual brilliance of the women from Brazil was also their weakness. The Brazilians played for themselves; the Americans played for each other.
And the Americans played for their five original stars.
"We had a goal," said Kate Markgraf, who first played for Team USA in 1998. "This was the last time our heroes would play with us. There was no way I was going to give up."
"It’s what we highlighted for six months," said 19-year-old Heather O’Reilly, a lightning-quick forward who will help carry on the team’s tradition. "That was our focus – getting them out with a gold medal around their necks."
Lindsay Tarpley, another first-time Olympian, had scored the team’s first goal in the 39th minute. Brazil had tied it in the 73rd minute. In between and before and after, both teams had gone at one another hard, littering the field with bodies.
And now in the 112th minute of play, the Americans had one more chance to win before the final whistle that, if the score were still tied, would signal a shootout to decide the gold. In 1999, they had won the World Cup that way, beating China when Scurry got a jump on the last penalty kick, saving it and the game.
Since then, the team had not won another major tournament. They lost to Norway in the final of the 2000 Sydney Olympics. A year ago, Germany eliminated them from the Women’s World Cup.
And Brazil was threatening to write another unhappy ending to a saga that had reached its final chapter.
But they had the corner kick, their second in overtime. They had failed to convert the first, with Hamm kicking the ball. Now it was Lilly’s turn to attempt the perfect entry.
The crowd wasn’t huge, just 10,416, but it made enough noise for three times that many. The players raced around the field in elation as the Brazilians sagged. They had time, more than seven minutes, to attempt to tie it again, but the life was knocked out of them, and they spent the end of the game bottled up in their own end.
When it was finally over, the American bench players stormed the field to leap into the mosh pit on the field. Scurry ran to the stands to get an American flag from her father. The other players soon followed, grabbing flags from the hundreds of friends and family members who came to watch them.
The celebration went on until the team was called to the medal stand. And then it resumed, the players going back to their families, running around the field, wanting to make this moment last forever.
At some point, a spectator came out of the stands to congratulate them, and the team posed for pictures with Michael Phelps, winner of six gold and two bronze medals in swimming.
"You don’t want to leave the field," said Scurry. "You don’t want it to end."
"We were going to try to soak everything up," added Tarpley.
They did a good job of it, continuing their party on the field, then carrying it into their locker room. It was more than 90 minutes after the game before they finally emerged to talk about what they’d done before going into a night that they would try to make last forever.
Hamm, who was the face of the sport for so many years, talked afterward with eyes rimmed in red and moist with tears. She talked not about herself but about the team.
"I couldn’t be prouder of being associated with this team," she said. "It’s an honor to be part of this group. I couldn’t think of a better way to go out."
She went on in that vein, saying her farewells to a team that had defined her life for so long. Finally, it was time to go, time for one last question.
What, someone asked, would the woman who, in her other life, is Mrs. Mia Garciaparra, do now?
"I’m going to take a break," she said. "I’m going to take three weeks off, travel with my husband, and root for the Cubs."
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