For a sport that critics have derided as un-American, soccer sure has a way of revealing the bedrock values of the American spirit. Patriotism, courage, the stubborn refusal to quit—these attributes were all on display on Sunday in Dresden, Germany, as the U.S. women's soccer team produced one of the greatest finishes you'll ever see at a sporting event. Seconds away from a World Cup quarterfinal exit, and playing shorthanded after some funny refereeing, the U.S. snatched victory from defeat, tying Brazil on Abby Wambach's Hail Mary stoppage-time header and prevailing on penalty kicks. "I literally can't believe that just happened," said Wambach, echoing millions of American sports fans.
The U.S. comeback set up a semifinal against France on Wednesday and occasioned Twitter fist pumps by everyone from Lil Wayne ("Wambach ... a hero") to Ellen DeGeneres ("The Women's World Cup game blew my mind") to Blake Griffin ("Hope Solo has serious swag")—a nod to the charismatic goalkeeper whose penalty-kick save helped clinch the win. Two more matches still stood between the Americans and their first World Cup in 12 years, but for a team that has long played in the shadow of its iconic 1999 predecessor, the triumph over Brazil offered the chance to create its own history, with a twist. Victory in Germany wouldn't be so much a liberating statement for women as it would be an affirmation that the U.S. is one hell of a team, no matter the gender or the sport.
The liberating statements are taking place elsewhere. If the '99 Women's World Cup was the ultimate vindication of Title IX in the U.S., this year's tournament is exporting Title IX on a global level. German fans have followed the games in record numbers, with more than 73,000 supporters filling Olympic Stadium in Berlin for the home side's opening victory against Canada, and nearly 700,000 tickets sold for the Cup's 32 games. Even more striking have been the television ratings, which set records for women's soccer in Canada and Germany. In the latter an audience of 16.6 million watched die Nationalelf (or the National 11) play Nigeria—more than one fifth of the host nation's population and almost as many as the 19 million locals who viewed last year's men's World Cup final.
Why, even the world's most die-hard men's soccer chauvinists had to admit last week that the Copa América—the South American men's championship taking place at the same time in Argentina—had been far less entertaining than the Women's World Cup despite the presence of some of soccer's top talent (see: Lionel Messi). The WWC featured better goals—and more of them—while showcasing more competitive balance than ever before. First-time entrants Colombia and Equatorial Guinea held their own against the world's best, and three of the four semifinalists (Japan, France and Sweden) had been considered long shots going into the tournament. The increased parity is a healthy sign for the growth of the women's game, which should only continue when the field increases from 16 to 24 teams for the 2015 World Cup in Canada.
Clearly, more national federations are investing in their women's programs. How best to explain the first WWC semifinal berths for Japan and France? The Japanese soccer federation runs programs teaching technical skills to young women around the country—no women's team in the world passes the ball as well as Japan—while the French federation is reaping the benefits of having included talented girls in the same Clairefontaine youth academy that produced so many of the players on its World Cup--winning men's team in 1998. Ten members of the French team play for Lyon, which won the most recent UEFA Women's Champions League title. And although women's games are still sparsely attended in Europe, the leagues in France, Germany, England and Sweden are slowly growing.
Not every aspect of the women's game is thriving, of course. Women's Professional Soccer, the six-team U.S. league, is struggling to stay afloat even though it features almost all of the U.S. national-teamers. China, a global power a decade ago, didn't even qualify for this World Cup and has suffered from its federation's neglect. The same can be said for mighty Brazil, which schedules embarrassingly few games for its women's team despite a lucrative sponsorship deal with Nike. The Samba Queens' mesmerizing star, Marta, has won the last five World Player of the Year awards, but she may never raise a major trophy with her national team.
Yet the mood in Germany last week was undeniably optimistic. For the first time, the distaff World Cup had the feel of a big-time global happening. The U.S. was producing its own indelible moments, but so too were the other teams in a dramatic set of quarterfinals. France's Elise Bussaglia scored a sensational late goal to tie England, which then gagged on its penalties, while Japan's Karina Maruyama hit a perfectly angled strike to dethrone the Germans, two-time defending champions, 1--0, in the biggest upset in women's soccer history. As Maruyama celebrated her goal, her face a mix of astonishment and ecstasy, it was hard to imagine a purer expression of athletic joy—at least until Wambach scored the next day.
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For more on the Women's World Cup from Grant Wahl, go to SI.com/soccer