I get World Cup fever. I wish I could say I didn’t, but every four years, just like the Olympics, I fiend to start wearing red white and blue and watch a game I might give 3 minutes to if nothing else was on TV. Or if I didn’t have a good book to read. If I had to guess at a reason, playing sports was something that dominated my youth. Never for money, or really a hope of a scholarship, just fun and competition. Pitting yourself, brains and brawn, against another human, and betting that the time you put in practicing, sweating, and bleeding made you better than they are. That was fun. That was sport. And yes, when the World Cup and Olympics roll around there’s definitely money and panache involved, but to see athletes competing for their flag first and everything else (supposedly) second makes it matter more. To me, at least. And oddly enough, I first caught the fever back in 1999 watching MIa Hamm lead the ladies to a World Cup title. Since then, I’ve watched the women’s cup with just as much fervor as the men’s (and no, it wasn’t because Brandi Chastain took her shirt off to celebrate. Pervs.).
After watching game one this year, I’m encouraged by the play (at least in the second half), but terribly discouraged, to the point of boiling fury, about the storylines. First, the entire Hope Solo saga, and how it seems the other women, coaches, staff, etc. have to tip toe through a mine field of awkward questions and stone-walling on account of one member of the team. Yes, she is an important part of that team. The game Monday night would’ve been a damn sight different if a less-extraordinary athlete stood between the posts for the US. But the litany of internet articles and headlines should be devoted to the incredible accomplishments of the entire team, not the shortcomings of one (admittedly) highly-visible part of that team. Yet positive never sells.
Everyone should thank ESPN for holding onto the details of Solo’s arrest until the day of the United States’ first game of the competition. Never mind that this might be the curtain call on the grandest stage for one of the greatest athletes to ever compete in any sport. Forget that the United States, that juggernaut of athletic prowess, is finally among the favorites to win an international competition for the first time since the summer of 2012. Nope. Let’s make it about one player, and their domestic violence arrest.
But the blame doesn’t rest with the media. I’d say its a 80/20 split with Solo herself bearing and the way the entire situation was handled bearing the greater burden. During a year where domestic violence became a hot-button issue for the NFL, the mightiest and most visible of the professional sport behemoths, the governing body of the U.S. women’s team failed to act decisively. When we finally saw pro football players held accountable for their acts (at least in terms of domestic violence) by the league they play for, Hope Solo’s transgressions were swept under the rug and ignored. Heap this on top of her penchant for colorful commentary, her lash-out at Brandi Chastain, her criticism of her coach and replacement after she was benched in 2007, it all adds up to a negative image. The arrest details, while embarrassing, don’t really shock me. She’s clearly not a nice person. Neither is Michael Jordan, but millions still idolized him. It’s the entirety of the package that gets wearisome, and you can see it in the eyes of her teammates as well. This is not someone they want to rally around to help her through a hard time. She’s a commodity they value for her play, but if she suddenly retired, I doubt they’d spit on her if she were on fire. Harsh, but probably true.
Yet there she is, front and center. The U.S. team (not the players, obviously) made their bed, and now they must sleep in it. Warnings to reporters to keep questions focused “on the field” awkwardly short and terse responses from players, it’s all a bad look for the sport. She is a spectacular athlete, and makes the team better, but is it worth it? Prior to Monday’s game, I bet the answers would’ve been mixed. Post-three potential game-changing saves, I bet it’s unanimous. And that’s the rub. She’s good. Potentially game-making good. But is winning worth it?
And this headline, the laughable “redemption tour” for Hope Solo, over-shadows the very real farewell tour for Abby Wambach. Just how good is the heart and soul of the U.S. team? Once-in-a-lifetime good. She’s scored 182 international team goals. To put that in perspective, let’s roll call: Lionel Messi has 45, Cristiano Ronaldo 52, the immortal Pele 77. The closest man to Wambach? Ali Daei (ever heard of him?) from Iran with 109. The closest woman? Mia Hamm with 158. She needs one more goal to tie for most World Cup goals in Women’s history, and just three to tie the highest-scoring World Cup man. She’s blue-collar, hard-working, and from Western New York. What’s not to love? Yet she plays third-fiddle to the Hope Solo circus and the Alex Morgan show. I don’t dislike Morgan, but when the Bulls went to the finals in ’91, Jordan got the press and all the endorsements, not B.J. Armstrong (another young offensive specialist who came off the bench and occasionally started. I pray at least one person gets that reference.). What’s the difference? B.J. wasn’t prettier than Michael.
Between the Solo act and the struggle to be respectable and still marketable, this year’s women’s team has plenty of off-the-field adversity to face. But they are brilliant when they’re on the field, and all the distractions go away. I know we can’t ignore the media hijinks, the inevitable she’s-hot-she’s-not commentary in the background, and even the slowly settling dust of the FIFA scandal (which apparently saw the worst of the chauvinists, responsible for comments like “maybe more people would watch if they wore tighter shorts” get their just rewards). I’m not saying we have to. Let’s just try to focus on what’s important: these ladies have worked exhaustively to get here, and are representing the United States with a very real chance at international success. So turn off the internet (unless you’re streaming) and just enjoy the purity of the sport, and let all the static fade into background noise.