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Global Game Becomes All American

September 18, 2000|MIKE PENNER

SYDNEY, Australia — Isn't it great, America, waking up in the land of the free and the home of unbeatable soccer teams?

We're just a bunch of ball-jugglin', slide-tacklin', corner-kickin', header-clearin', back-passin', samba-dribblin' freaks who have come to Australia to show the world how this here Beautiful Game is supposed to be played.

Take a gander at those Olympic soccer standings:

American men: Undefeated after two games.

American women: Undefeated after two games.

No other soccer-playing nation can make the same claim.

Brazil? Oh, come on. So very 10 minutes ago. The Brazilian men were taken out by South Africa--South Africa?--by a score of 3-1 Sunday, matching the women, who lost to Germany the night before, 2-1.

Nigeria? The 1996 men's Olympic champions were tied by Honduras and were lucky to sneak by Australia. The Nigerian women haven't won a game.

Of course, according to the fine print, that's one fewer victory than the Americans, who have tied three of their four starts. But what are you going to do--stand there and quibble, or get stuck in and dribble?

The U.S. men are 0-0-2 but would be 2-0 if they could learn to stop frisking foreigners inside the penalty area. Bump a Cameroonian here, tie game. Check a Czech there, tie game. Sydney security guards looking for plastic explosives in shoulder bags aren't half as intrusive.

The U.S. women are 1-0-1 but would be 2-0 if Kristine Lilly had looked left and shot right against China, or if Coach April Heinrichs hadn't pulled Brandi Chastain midway through the second half, or if Michelle Akers hadn't retired.

You want the whole story behind the United States' 1-1 draw with China? In three letters or less?


Not Mia. The Chinese defense turned Mia Hamm's No. 9 into invisible ink in Melbourne, much the same way it did during last year's World Cup final in Pasadena.

MIA. As in Missing In Action. As in Akers, whose absence from the American midfield Sunday was the troublesome first domino to fall for Heinrichs. With no Akers in the middle to tower over the Chinese as she did in '99, the United States was suddenly short of big bodies to head the ball, which led to Heinrich's decision to bring on tall Cindy Parlow as a substitute for Chastain in the 62nd minute, which left Heinrichs without a couple of ace penalty-takers, Akers and Chastain, when one had to be taken in the 74th minute, which left the task to Lilly, whose attempt was blocked by Chinese goalkeeper Gao Hong.

Also missing in action Sunday were numerous pieces of Lycra swimsuits, ripped and torn--no, not by squabbling members of the U.S. women's swim team--during the women's water polo competition, or as it is referred to here, Strip Polo.

There was so much clutching and grabbing going on at the Ryde Aquatic Leisure Centre that when the women poloists finally emerged from the pool, they looked like triathletes who had just crossed Sydney Harbor without the benefit of shark nets.

Final totals from the Australia-Russia match:

Aussies: 6 goals.

Russians: 3 goals.

Swimsuits ripped to shreds: 10.

Cost to replace damaged swimsuits: $1,000.

After the United States and Canada completed a similar tear-a-thon in an 8-8 border brawl, a Canadian publicist brandished one of the wounded swimsuits for the benefit of the media. Big slash across the chest. Both shoulder straps severely frayed.

Canadian poloist Waneek Horn-Miller caught some flak for posing nude--just a girl and her water polo ball--on the cover of Time Canada. But now that we've seen how her sport is played, Horn-Miller is off the hook. Hey, just a part of the game.

Thanks to the Internet, news from the States travels much more quickly now, almost as fast a Dutch swimmer. Many American sportswriters at the Main Press Center here were stunned to learn that UCLA had beaten Michigan in football, although Australian sportswriters, to be honest about it, were not quite as impressed.

Yes, it was a big weekend for de Bruijns. UCLA's footballers conquered the state of Michigan, Holland's Inge de Bruijn took care of the rest of the planet with her world-record victory in the women's 100-meter butterfly.

She and countryman Pieter van den Hoogenband are poised to toss a bright orange wet blanket over this Ozzie! Ozzie! Ozzie! swim party, now that Van Den Hoogenband has bettered Invincible Ian Thorpe's world record in the 200 freestyle.

Van Den Hoogenband (rhymes with Van Den Hoogenband) took two-hundredths of a second off Thorpe's world record with a dash of 1:45.35 in the semifinals, setting up a final showdown being touted, irresistibly, by the local media as Thorpedo vs. the Flying Dutchman.

Win or lose, however, the pressure's already off Thorpe. His yellow swim cap and smiling mug have already made their way onto an official set of Australian postage stamps, released to the public today.

That's one more difference between America and Australia. Back in the States, you first have to die to get your face on a postage stamp. Here, you only have to make it through prelims.

All things considered, I'd rather be Australian.

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