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ATHENS 2004

Once More, With Feeling

U.S. women's soccer team tries to avenge World Cup loss

August 08, 2004|Grahame L. Jones | Times Staff Writer

April Heinrichs could do worse than to call in the witch doctors.

That's what they did at the Copa America in Peru last month, and if Heinrichs, coach of the U.S. women's national soccer team, wants to win the gold medal in Athens, a little magic might come in handy.

"With flowers, good perfumes and good wishes we are asking the protective gods that no misfortune befall any player, and above all that there are good matches."

So intoned Juan Osco, a man known in Peru as the "Shaman of the Andes," as he and various other oddly clad figures rattled gourds, shook shrunken heads and cast spells and flower petals in Lima to ensure that all went well at the Copa America.

It worked for Brazil, which won the event, but the other teams, especially losing finalist Argentina, will reserve judgment.

At the third women's Olympic soccer tournament, it might be the U.S. that wins. Or it could be Germany, or even Sweden or China.

Some sorcery could make all the difference.

If the 10-nation event were to follow form, the Germans and Americans would meet in the semifinals at Heraklio on the island of Crete on Aug. 23 -- the current world champion facing the former world champion for a spot in the gold-medal game.

Heinrichs might be in need of some "flowers, good perfumes and good wishes" at that time because Germany, under experienced Coach Tina Theune-Meyer, presents a formidable obstacle.

It was the Germans, inspired by striker Birgit Prinz and goalkeeper Silke Rottenberg, who beat the U.S., 3-0, last September in Portland, Ore., in the semifinals of the fourth FIFA Women's World Cup.

That loss, which left American players in tears, still rankles ... and inspires, just as the semifinal loss to Norway in the 1995 World Cup did.

"It weighs on your mind all the time," Julie Foudy said. "After the '95 loss to Norway, it was something we talked about daily, never being in that situation again, and we ended up winning the '96 gold medal.

"It's a topic all the time. We were just doing set pieces the other day in training during one of our last days in L.A., and within that practice we brought up the Germany game four different times. I think it's a great motivator.

"At the same time, it's not like we've beaten ourselves up for a year and are negative about it. It happens. Germany was a great team. Let's give them a lot of credit because they are a great team, and now let's go back to this Olympics and make sure things are different."

Before reaching that point, however, the U.S. first must get past Greece, Brazil and Australia in the tournament's opening round, and then overcome its quarterfinal opponent, most likely Japan, Mexico or Nigeria.

Of those six teams, only Brazil, in Thessaloniki on Aug. 14, is expected to cause Heinrichs' squad any difficulty.

Later, in all probability, will come Germany in the semifinals. After that, it will probably be China or Sweden that await the winner when the final is played at Karaiskaki Stadium in Athens on Aug. 26.

The Swedes, beaten, 2-1, by the Germans at the Home Depot Center in the World Cup final, have promised to return the favor.

"I think we were worth the gold medal," Swedish striker Victoria Svensson said. "But they won and there's nothing we can do now. We're going to take the gold medal at the Olympics."

That might be a tall order, especially considering that Sweden recently was trounced, 4-0, by Norway, the Sydney 2000 gold-medal winner, and the Norwegians did not even qualify for Athens.

As for China, it has been the "almost" team for too long and is intent on finally winning something. China settled for the silver medal to the Americans' gold at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics and at the 1999 World Cup.

China has a new coach, 34-year-old Zhang Haitao, who, since being appointed in December, has rebuilt the team that fell in the quarterfinals of the 2003 World Cup. Zhang admits that "there exists a gap between China and the world's best teams," but the pressure is not on him just yet.

According to Xue Li, a vice president of the China Football Assn., the Chinese women are setting their sights not on Athens but on 2008, when Beijing will stage the Olympics.

China plays world champion Germany in its opening game, on Wednesday in Patra, at which time Zhang could discover just how much work he needs to do over the next four years.

For Heinrichs, meanwhile, the Athens Games could be a swan song, just as it will be for U.S. veterans Joy Fawcett, Foudy and Mia Hamm, all of whom will retire from international competition after the Olympics.

Hamm, like the others, says it is important that the "old timers" go out on top.

"We set out in every tournament to win," she said. "I think that's been one of the strengths of our team throughout the years, and this tournament is no different.

"With regards to myself and, I'm sure, Julie, that's how you want to go out -- on a high note, on a winning note. That's what we've been preparing to do for the last six months. We'll see what happens."

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