O'Reilly captures the American imagination
The United States are preparing to contest the Final of the Women's Olympic Football Tournament for the third time in as many appearances. Thursday's decider against Brazil will be the swansong for a generation of American players that have kept their country amongst the world's elite since 1991. And while the curtain falls on several illustrious careers, the Athens 2004 Final will seal the rise of a new American star, 19-year-old Heather O'Reilly. The newcomer has left an indelible imprint on the competition, having scored the winner against Germany in the semi-final. Now O'Reilly is hoping to strike again in Athens to clinch the Gold medal for the team-mates she has idolised since childhood.
When you catch sight of a posse of American journalists huddled attentively around a smiling and garrulous young footballer, their microphones outstretched and their pens scribbling frantically, your immediate reaction is that Julie Foudy, Brandi Chastain or Mia Hamm must be about. But times they are a-changing, and these days you might be wrong. A new American star has been born at these Olympics; and now everyone wants a piece of Heather O'Reilly.
One such media scrum gathered around the teenager in the aftermath of the USA's semi-final against Germany, and the fuss was easy to understand. After all, O'Reilly had just scored an extra-time winner to clinch the Americans' place in the Final of the Women's Olympic Football Tournament. With one sweet strike, the girl who is almost young enough to be the daughter of some of the USA's more seasoned stars captured the imagination of the American public. She had given her exalted team-mates the chance to go for glory one last time before they retire from the international stage. And that is one footballing fairytale the teenager is proud to have featured in. "After everything these girls have done over the last ten years and more," said the teenager, "I'm delighted to have booked their place in the Final."
O'Reilly handles the media attention comfortably, and has no qualms about admitting she, like so many other American girls, grew up as a "fan" of the US team. "When I was a little girl, I had posters of Mia Hamm all over my bedroom walls," she revealed. "Yep, I was a 'Mia maniac', or rather a devout supporter of the national team (laughs)! I followed their every move during their 1999 triumph." She was not quite old enough, however, to have even begun thinking about football in 1991, when the illustrious trio of Mia Hamm, Julie Foudy and Kristine Lilly lifted their first-ever trophy.
Now she is a fully-fledged member of the family, rooming with 36-year-old team-mate Brandi Chastain. Heather - whose favourite book is JD Salinger's Catcher in the Rye - may be at a different stage in her life, but the generation gap clearly does not cause any strife. On the contrary, the mood in the camp is relaxed and friendly.
"Brandi and the others poke fun at me a little when I say I haven't heard of such-and-such a song or group, but then I do the same to them when they don't know any of the stuff I listen to," she explains. "It's all just fun, and in reality they've taken me under the wings."
"Heather is very mature and intelligent," says Chastain. "Obviously she's still young, but she displays great courage on the pitch. She's a fighter, and on her day she can produce real magic. She's not old but she's already wise."
The baby of the squad seems to have impressed everyone, and her team-mates are only to happy to proffer plaudits. "Heather has been brilliant," says an amazed Foudy. "She's incredibly fast and really precious in this type of match. She scored one goal and very nearly claimed another. That's fantastic!"
Service on a plate by her idol
There can be no denying the teenager from New Brunswick deserves all the praise that is coming here way. In 45 minutes play in the semi-final, including extra-time, she saw one shot come back off the post and went desperately close to scoring on two other occasions before finally plundering the all-important winner. Still, at least half of the credit for that goal must go to Mia Hamm, who produced some superb work before serving up a goal-scoring chance on a plate.
"It was a sublime piece of play by Mia," enthused Lilly. "She outfoxed the entire defence before slipping the perfect pass through to Heather, who made no mistake with the finish. Heather was brilliant; she came off the bench, created havoc with her constant runs and ultimately got the goal she deserved."
When asked about the goal afterwards, O'Reilly immediately paid tribute to the contribution of her childhood idol, for whom she is still full of admiration. "Mia was amazing when setting up my goal," she says. "I was just in the right place at the right time. With a pass of that class, you don't need to blast the ball, it's more a question of guiding it home. The hard part was the run to get there."
Even the great Hamm, who is so reticent when it comes to talking about her own performances, was effusive in her praise of her young colleague. "Heather's greatest attribute is that she always wants to make an impact," she explains. "She is young but already has quite a lot of experience of major tournaments. For example, she played in the U-19 World Championship in Canada in 2002 and was basically the leader of that team. That experience is standing her in good stead now. The goal she scored was nowhere near as easy as it may have looked. She took it really well, and that speaks volumes for her character."
Despite all the acclaim she has received since the semi-final, O'Reilly will more than likely start on the bench again against Brazil. "Heather is a teenager. She was thrown into the game and played magnificently," explained star American striker Abby Wambach. "She is the future of this team, and is only going to get better."
The teenager in question will certainly not be throwing any tantrums about being named a substitute for the Final. "I did what I was supposed to do, came off the bench and scored," she said. "It worked out nicely."
After helping her "moms" reach their third Olympic Final in a row, O'Reilly would like nothing more than to see them take Gold for the second time. Then it will be up to her to pick up the baton from her idols and become the driving force behind the American bid to make it four finals in a row in Beijing 2008.