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There's No Business Like Shoe Business

September 15, 2000|MIKE PENNER

MELBOURNE, Australia — There has to be a medal in this for Tiffeny Milbrett, and not the one Juan Antonio Samaranch could be draping around her neck in two weeks' time.

The Croix de Swoosh?

The Grand Order of the Knights of Phil Knight?

For distinguished service on behalf of multinational capitalism and overpriced sports shoes, Nike owes Milbrett something. Four days before scoring the first goal in the United States' victory over Norway in the first women's soccer game of the Olympics, Milbrett staunchly defended the colors of another flag, throwing herself into a middle of an anti-Nike protest during the World Economic Forum in Melbourne.

Milbrett and teammate Brandi Chastain happened on the protest during a Sunday walk through the park. Curious, they hung around a while, listening to the angry discourse, pretty much sticking to the background until one female protester defiantly shouted, "Who in this crowd has Nike shoes on?"

"I do!" Milbrett shouted back.

Not the recommended ice-breaker at this sort of function, but that's Milbrett. Perpetually feisty, unable to step down from a challenge, even if the cause is something less than politically correct.

Words were exchanged, voices were raised.

Finally, Milbrett demanded to know, "Who made your shoes?"

At that, the protester lost it. She pulled off her Doc Martens and flung them to the ground.

"I don't need these shoes!" the woman yelled at Milbrett. "I paid $200 for these shoes!"

Milbrett, not yielding an inch: "That's your fault!"

OK, so it wasn't "Crossfire." Soccer players and politicians are seldom advised to spend much time on the same field. But at least Milbrett was smart enough to sense she was not quite playing to the crowd, so she and Chastain, in the words of the U.S. team press officer Aaron Heifetz, "beat a hasty retreat."

Julie Foudy, Team USA midfielder and ever-valuable voice of reason, was fairly amused by the whole episode.

"She was fighting for her Nikes!" Foudy said, giggling at the thought.

"She stood up there and said, 'I'm proud to wear my Nikes!' "

Foudy laughed again and rolled her eyes.

"Yeah," Foudy said, voice tinged with sarcasm. "You're paid to wear your Nikes."

Thursday at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, very far from the madding crowd, Milbrett was back fighting the good fight, for the good old US of A and its defense of the 1996 Olympic women's soccer gold medal. Much easier taking sides in this kind of scrum. If you're wearing white, the enemy is in red. Ticket takers and concessionaires are making more than two dollars a day. The only sweat shop in view is a vast patch of wet green grass.

In this setting, being off-target means you hit the post. Milbrett did it three times, banging shots against all three pieces of the pipe, pulling off the rare soccer trifecta.

Right post: Struck in the 40th minute.

Crossbar: Nailed in the 44th.

Left post: Pounded in the 68th.

"Tough to do," Milbrett acknowledged with a grin. "I have never done that before."

And couldn't even if she were specifically handed the assignment.

"No, I probably couldn't," she said. "That won't ever happen again, I promise."

Milbrett could laugh about it then, because her shot in the 18th minute didn't hit anything but net, sending the United States on its way to a 2-0 triumph.

Of course, it could have been 6-0--Milbrett also missed a wide-open net in the 30th minute--which must have contributed to the strangely subdued atmosphere surrounding the match. Here was Team USA, defending Olympic and Women's World Cup champion, playing against one of the top three female soccer teams on the planet in the supposed sports-mad city of Melbourne--and it was so quiet, you could almost hear a goalpost reverberate.

After hosting 93,000 for Wednesday's men's soccer match between Australia and Italy, the Cricket Ground for USA-Norway more resembled a midweek MLS game. Played in Kansas City. The official crowd count was listed as 16,043, but that included hundreds of early arriving Chileans, settling in for Ivan "Bam Bam" Zamborano's hat trick in the nightcap against Morocco.

Evidently, news of the Great Women's Soccer Boom of '99 hasn't trickled down under yet. "You'd yell, 'Hello!' out there," Milbrett noted, "and it would echo 100 times."

Or maybe it was the threat of rain. Or frostbite. "Welcome to Nagano," one American reporter cracked as teeth-chattering colleagues, wrapped in parkas and ski caps, settled into the Cricket Ground's frigid open-air press box.

The program said "Summer Olympics." The sport on the field was soccer. Everything else, however, felt like the four-man bobsled finals.

It was cold, it was damp, the building was almost empty. Is this any way to treat America's golden girls of last summer?

Milbrett, one more time, played the contrarian.

"It was quiet, but it was a nice quiet," she said. "We're here, away from home, away from America. We don't have that added pressure--that we have to win. We don't have to do anything. It's nice."

Just as quietly, the Americans might have clinched a medal before the Olympic caldron is lit in Sydney. They need to finish first or second in their group to advance to the semifinals and they are now three points up on Norway in the standings. Both teams figure to beat Nigeria, so it might not matter how both teams fare against China.

With a new coach, a new formation, a new goalkeeper and a new defensive midfielder, the Americans are back to old standards, thumping Norwegians, gearing up for the Chinese, on their way to yet another medal round.

And kick-starting them in the right direction was Old Blood N' Guts Milbrett, Phil Knight's favorite new foot soldier.

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