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ATHENS 2004 | Mike Penner / THE DAY IN ATHENS

These Weren't Upsets, but They Were Upsetting

August 27, 2004|Mike Penner

ATHENS — Nostrils flared, and so did tempers. Fingers were pointed, voices were raised and acrimony filled the air.

"You want some of me?" an angry U.S. men's basketball Coach Larry Brown yelled at his counterpart from Spain.

"We want Mia!" an angry U.S. media mob yelled at soccer public-relations officials as the hands on the clock on the Athens wall crawled toward 1:30 a.m.

Hooliganism in sports was said to be on the decline in Europe, but that was before a hot and testy Thursday in Greece, when studious, bespectacled, 63-year-old Larry Brown invited Spanish Olympic basketball Coach Mario Pesquera to step outside after the Americans' 102-94 quarterfinal victory and reporters covering the United States' gold-medal soccer victory over Brazil threatened to mix it up with slow-moving P.R. types in the Karaiskaki Stadium mixed zone.

And this was after the U.S. won both games.

This might have been the first time in international sports history when yellow cards were needed in the interview area after a soccer match.

The U.S. women had just made history, somehow outscoring Brazil, 2-1, in a match Brazil dominated for most of 120 minutes, to win their second Olympic gold medal. A throng of U.S. journalists was there to chronicle the moment, but they needed quotes from the players, and the players weren't coming out of the locker room, and it was past 1 in the morning, and the journalists were there to report history for daily newspapers, not next year's encyclopedia.

So some of them started yelling. And cursing. Occasionally in two languages, in case the FIFA official from France didn't understand the English version of the expletive.

The U.S. players were still inside their locker room, biting their gold medals to see if they were real, giving individual speeches of gratitude to everyone from the starters to the statisticians, hugging everybody, wiping away tears, taking their sweet time because an era was really ending -- the Mia Hamm-Julie Foudy-Joy Fawcett era -- and no one in that room wanted to say goodbye.

Their hesitance was understandable to any American, except those under the pressure of deadline. Eventually, the U.S, players came out to talk, all showered and smiling, and a potentially nasty scene was barely averted.

Which fairly mimicked the game the American women had just played.

A popular fantasy among sports fans is the desire to watch their athletic heroes go out on top. They wanted Michael Jordan to retire right after the jump shot over Bryon Russell, not playing for a lottery team called the Wizards.

Well, the Murderers' Row of women's international soccer -- Hamm, Foudy and Fawcett, and maybe Kristine Lilly, Brandi Chastain and Briana Scurry too -- was making its final appearance in a major tournament Thursday. This was it, win or lose. And if ever a dynasty decided to call it quits at precisely the right moment, this was the one.

If they played on for a half-hour more, even 15 minutes more, the ending might not have been so happy. On this night, Brazil was stronger, faster, younger, better on the ball, more creative, more explosive, more of everything ... except those two final numbers on the scoreboard.

"[Soccer] is the No. 1 sport in the world," Brazil Coach Rene Simoes said after the match. "And I think one of the reasons for that is what happened here today. The better team did not win.

"So if you are a fan of one team that is not the best, you are [encouraged] to go to the stadium to cheer for your team when they play against a better team, a more famous team, a more strong team, because your team has a chance to win the game.

"That is fascinating. That is what makes [soccer] so loved."

The Americans scored their first goal after an apparent handball by Chastain went uncalled, and got away with another possible handball, in their penalty area, in overtime. Brazil, meanwhile, hit the left post twice and had numerous threats barely turned away by Scurry, the greatly overtaxed U.S. keeper.

By simply hanging in there, the Americans bought themselves time until the 112th minute, when Lilly lofted a high corner kick that resulted in a rare doubleheader -- Abby Wambach heading it off the head of Brazil's defender Juliana and into the back of the net.

It wasn't pretty, not by any means, but it got the job done.

For the grand old dynasties we all grew up with, that's the new, downsized reality in 2004.

The U.S. against Brazil in women's soccer used to be a gimme. No more. By the looks of things Thursday, Brazil's women are poised to take their place next to Brazil's men as world beaters. Bring on the 2007 Women's World Cup and the 2008 Olympics.

The U.S. against Spain in men's basketball used to be a given. Now, the NBA stars and their coach, barely two months removed from an NBA championship, have to battle for every scrap, every tapa, just to eke out passage to a semifinal against Argentina, one more gimme-no-more.

Pesquera accused Brown of bad sportsmanship when Brown called timeout with 23 seconds remaining and the U.S. leading by 11. Brown got in Pesquera's face on the court. In the postgame news conference, Pesquera said Dean Smith would not have called that timeout, and Brown compared Pesquera to his son "who sometimes doesn't let me explain."

For a while Thursday, the bulletin board in the U.S. Olympic Committee office read, "U.S. men upset Spain (6-0) in basketball," until people began talking about it and someone changed the verb.

It's a strange new world out there. We had best get used to it.

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