On a day filled with soccer heroics, U.S. women made biggest statement
Sunday brought a glorious menagerie of top-tier international soccer to fans around the world, and it was fitting that the victory by the United States in the Women's World Cup final -- the most significant, most meaningful, most important of the day's matches -- came first.
The day later featured a cathartic Copa America triumph for the Brazilian men and a Mexico-U.S. showdown at the Gold Cup, but those two matches failed to reach the impeccable standard that was witnessed at the women's final in Lyon, France.
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To what end? For the women, of course, that notion crosses many levels. It is impossible to think of another set of athletes who carry the burden of responsibility that the Americans do, as a group that plays -- every day -- with a social load hanging quite so heavy across their shoulders. They are vocal advocates for the LGBTQ community, for equal pay and for equal treatment.
They played this entire World Cup while suing their own federation for alleged gender bias and -- in a glorious dismissal of the tedious trope that athletes need to avoid distractions to be successful -- dominated the tournament while dealing with questions about the lawsuit, overwrought (and gender-tinged) dissections of their celebrations and a public back-and-forth with the president of the United States along the way.
Their 2-0 victory over the Netherlands in the final was thorough. Megan Rapinoe, whose candor and poise made her the face and voice of the tournament, scored one goal, and Rose Lavelle, the most intriguing young player at the event, scored the other.
Before the game, the Dutch team posted a video to their social media accounts acknowledging that the U.S. team's excellence and ambition the past two decades showed their players that "dreams are possible." Several hours later, the game ended with fans in the stadium chanting "Equal pay!" in the same style as "U-S-A!"
"I feel like this team is in the midst of changing the world around us, as we live," Rapinoe told reporters afterward.
The rise of women's soccer is happening feverishly. The United States was in the quarterfinals with seven European countries (including the Netherlands, who were playing in just their second Women's World Cup); they faced the hungry teams they often inspire. Then they won their second straight World Cup and fourth overall, demonstrating that there is still a significant gap in talent.
In truth, it should have been the only game on the day. There would never be anything even close to a match as big as a Copa America or Gold Cup final scheduled on the same day as the men's World Cup title decider, so it was the height of hypocrisy that FIFA and CONCACAF and CONMEBOL scheduled the women's final to share the stage with anyone. That it was, at least in the case of the Gold Cup, an (admitted) oversight as opposed to willful disregard is, frankly, just as bad.
Nonetheless, the men's tournaments -- especially the Copa America -- provided plenty of familiar ingredients: refereeing controversies, hand-wringing over the failures of Lionel Messi and Argentina, and the surge of Peru through the bracket, pushing its way to the final in a quest for its first title since 1975. As upstarts go, the Peruvians and Paolo Guerrero were excellent. But in the end, the tournament was about Brazil, the hosts who -- like the American women -- compete against history every time they step on the field. In this instance, under the embattled coach Tite and without injured star Neymar, they restored order to South American soccer with a 3-1 win.
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It was not beautiful. It was not, certainly, the almost-mythical jogo bonito that some Brazilians wax poetic about to the point of delusion. But it was defining and definitive, a reminder of one of those things we always think should be true (even if it isn't always the case): Brazil is one of the best. Now, for the first time since 2007, they are champions of their part of the world.
Mexico can say the same. Yes, the Gold Cup had its version of the Netherlands and Peru -- Haiti's run to the semifinal might be the most staggering thing we see all year -- but, as with the others on Sunday, the story here was affirmation. No team other than Mexico or the United States has won a Gold Cup since 2000, and after halting Haiti, the Mexicans outlasted the U.S. team 1-0 on Sunday in Chicago to make it clear, again, that they are the dominant presence in CONCACAF.
Again, it wasn't nearly as aesthetically pleasing as the American women's team performance. The pace was frantic but sloppy, and the hateful, vile, anti-gay chant so often shouted by Mexican fans rang out loudly and frequently from the stands at Soldier Field.
There was plenty of ugliness on the field, too, as Mexico's captain, Andres Guardado, should have been (but wasn't) sent off for grabbing his counterpart, Weston McKennie, by the throat. In the end, the U.S. was incredibly wasteful, and Jonathan dos Santos' goal -- which was, in fact, the cap to a gorgeous move -- was the difference. Mexico celebrated a Gold Cup trophy for the eighth time, meaning the team has won more than half of the tournaments played, a reality that felt particularly relevant at the end of this unusual day.
Would it have been a lovely bookend if the United States had won? Yes. But it wouldn't have kept with the weekend's theme of dominance and power. The proof is right in front of us: In soccer, Mexico has it. Brazil too.
And no one has it more than the American women.