US women’s soccer suffered its nadir in Hangzhou. There, in September 2007, their historic 51-game unbeaten run and chances of reaching the FIFA Women’s World Cup™ final were violently obliterated by the unfathomable trickery of Marta and Brazil.
Eleven months later, 600 miles up China PR’s east coast, USA were afforded a crack at avenging that 4-0 defeat – and this time gold was at stake. Revenge was also on Brazilian minds: they had lost to the Americans in the previous Women’s Olympic Football Tournament final four years ago in Athens.
USA were bidding to made it three titles from four editions of the competition, while Brazil were out for their first global trophy five years ago this Wednesday. The former’s new coach didn’t, however, subscribe to those statistics. Pia Sundhage had witnessed that Hangzhou mismatch and, to heighten the Stars and Stripes’ odds, they were without the inspirational Abby Wambach, who missed Beijing 2008 with a broken leg.
The wily Swede’s gameplan was to double up on Marta and her partner-in-torment Cristiane and look to hit Brazil on the counter-attack. Defenders Christie Rampone, Kate Markgraf, Lori Chalupny and Heather Mitts carried out Sundhage’s orders to a tee in the first half, making it a very tight, shot-shy one.
When I was a child I wasn't allowed to play football because I was a girl, and here I am today looking at this gold medal.
After the restart, however, the fleet-footed Brazilian duo began to con their way into dangerous positions. To their frustration, though, they encountered an insurmountable barricade between the US sticks. Hope Solo had been controversially dropped for the China 2007 semi-final by previous coach Greg Ryan and had publicly ridiculed that decision. Now the 27-year-old took to justifying her words in front of around 50,000 – including NBA mega-star Kobe Bryant – at the Dragon Stadium. The 27-year-old caught examining crosses with consummate ease, heedfully rushed from her area to deny Cristiane a clear run on goal, superbly blocked a point-blank Marta drive and managed to courageously pounce on the rebound before the Brazil No10 could poke it home.
Then, in the 72nd minute, Solo produced the female equivalent to Englishman Gordon Banks’ epic denial of Brazil forward Pele’s downward header in their 1970 FIFA World Cup Mexico™ clash – arguably the most famous save in the history of an international tournament. Marta somehow jinked past two US defenders inside a seemingly non-existent gap in the area and, from less than seven yards, swung back her left leg and put all her vaunted venom into the shot. Solo’s reaction was whirlwind, her right arm inexplicably adjusting to repel the effort. So inconceivable the save was that a pair of commentators on US television required two replays to realise that the ball had been saved by the 27-year-old rather than cannoned back off the post!
Solo’s opposite number Barbara turned saviour in the 86th minute, making a superb save from Angela Hucles. Then, in the last minute, Amy Rodriguez raced on to a headed flick-on to go one-on-one with Barbara. Noticing the Brazil goalkeeper slip, the Beverly Hills native tried to chip her, but the attempt lacked height and Barbara was able to leap from the floor to make a catch. Rodriguez had one final shot in injury time, but Barbara was equal to it to ensure the final went to extra time.
USA carried the momentum with which they finished normal time into the additional half-four, and they required just six minutes to make the breakthrough. Substitute Lauren Cheney played the ball into Carli Lloyd, who produced an exquisite first-time flick to divert it to Rodriguez. The US No8 did well to hold it up and lay it back to Lloyd, who ghosted past her marker and, from just outside the box, powered a magnificent strike into the bottom corner.
Brazil threw everything forward thereafter, but Rampone, Markgaf, Chalupny and Mitts threw their bodies across the slippery surface to make tackle after tackle, block after block. And when Cristiane did find space in the area, with just seconds remaining, and directed a header goalwards, Solo was perfectly placed to play American nemesis for one final time in Beijing. It wouldn’t, though, be the save people would be waxing lyrical about for decades to come.
“I don’t know how she kept that out,” rued Brazil coach Jorge Barcellos afterwards, while Sundhage labelled Solo’s save as “extraordinary”.
The Swede added: “What an amazing match. When I was a child I wasn't allowed to play football because I was a girl, and here I am today looking at this gold medal. I'm very proud and thrilled with this victory.”
Solo was also in utopia: “I’m on cloud nine, just floating out there. It’s like a storybook ending after everything that happened. It’s something you see in Hollywood or in fairy tales.”