ATHENS, Greece - There were going to be tears either way.
After almost 15 years as the greatest road show in women’s sports, the Fab Five of the U.S. soccer team gave one last performance together on a world stage they practically built with their own hands and feet and most of all, with their hearts.
The game turned out like so many of the grand exits we know about in advance — nowhere near as good as the hype. It was jittery because of too much pent-up emotion and even difficult to watch at times, if only because age has made it impossible to bridge the talent gulf that has opened up between then and now.
But by the end, none of that mattered.
Those were tears of joy streaking their cheeks, no matter what other sentiments might have been mixed in.
“It’s a great way to end it,” Mia Hamm said.
As she spoke, Hamm clutched another gold medal to go with the one she won in Atlanta in 1996. So did Joy Fawcett, which, added to the silver this bunch won in Sydney, gave her enough to take care of each of her kids. Julie Foudy had the only thing around her neck precious enough to dull the pain in her swollen ankle. Even Kristine Lilly and Brandi Chastain, who might still soldier on in the U.S. national team program, had the souvenirs they came here to get.
The United States beat Brazil 2-1 in extra time on a header by Abby Wambach, who turned 11 during the summer when the Fab Five began their incredible run at the 1991 World Cup. The first goal Thursday night was provided by Lindsay Tarpley, who was 8 at the time. The final score defied not only what had taken place on the field the previous 120 minutes, but really, the way the whole tournament went.
“We were bending, but we weren’t breaking,” Chastain said. “They were throwing the kitchen sink at us, but we knew we had the heart to win it.”
The U.S. team was probably not the best team at these Olympics, but it was definitely the oldest. With an average age of 27 years, 3 months, they were 2 1/2 years older than their more skilled Brazilian counterparts and it was apparent seconds after the kickoff. They were manhandled physically from beginning to end, beaten to just about every loose ball and unable to sustain the rhythmic short passing game that used to leave opponents feeling like they’d dropped in on a coaching clinic.
“I think today, Brazil was the better team. We deserved to win,” Brazil coach Rene Simoes said. “But we have to congratulate the United States.”
Those words weren’t as difficult to get out as you might imagine. Simoes, long a topflight men’s coach in Brazil, knows the history of women’s soccer better than most. He also has two daughters at U.S. universities. He knows athletic opportunities for that generation might still be stuck today if not for the Fab Five.
Besides, he was also indebted to the Americans for a lesson they gave Brazil during a game in the United States in May.
“We learn a lot from them,” he said. “They beat us 5-1. That was our beginning.”
The strange thing about this whole wild ride is that the woman with the most to lose never even set foot on the field. That was U.S. coach April Heinrichs, who gambled to the very end in a bid to let the pioneers go out on their feet, not on the bench. She made only one substitution during regulation, letting Brandi Chastain play long past her expiration hour. The only change she made in overtime was to pull Tarpley, the team’s second-youngest player, to replace her with the youngest, Heather O’Reilly.
Her job may have hung in the balance, but Heinrichs left no doubt whether she wanted to keep it.
“I feel a little bit as if you just asked a pregnant woman if she wants to have another child,” she said.
Even so, Heinrichs made it clear this game was never going to be about her, but about the Fab Five.
It was not going to be about selling their game, the way the gold medal in Atlanta or the silver in Sydney was. Or about proving to TV, corporate sponsors and the other half of America that women athletes can draw an audience and keep it.
It wasn’t going to be about their coach or their sport or even their country. It was payback for all the sacrifices those five made for each other, for the long stretches away from home, for postponing marriages, careers and school.
That way, if this was going to be their last time together, they could go out like the champions they are.
“They carried me, tonight,” Hamm said, “that’s for sure.”
But she was owed that much, and more. So much more, in fact, that someone asked one more time whether Hamm would reconsider hanging up her cleats.
“Am I convinced,” she said. “Yes.”
Hamm smiled. It was a weary grin, but still strong after 13 years and at least that many thousands of miles.
“If you only knew,” Hamm said, “how my body felt.”
MORE FROM SOCCER
Add Soccer headlines to your news reader: