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July 14, 1999

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July 14, 1999

Last Saturday, the U.S. women's soccer team made history again. In a thrilling final match played before a sell-out crowd of more than 90,000 fans -- the most ever to watch a women's sporting event -- the Americans outscored a brilliant Chinese team on penalty kicks to regain their World Cup title.

One of the great lines to come out of this year's World Cup is from a TV ad in which a U.S. player is told by her dentist that she needs two fillings. One by one, each of her teammates stands up to pledge, "Then, I will have two fillings." This summer, whenever the American team played, little girls held up signs proclaiming, "I will have two fillings."

What those pint-sizes fans realized is that this Women's World Cup was about more than soccer. It was about teamwork and solidarity. It was about the power of women and how far they've come in the last quarter-century. And it was about little girls everywhere, and the doors that are opening for them.

I was lucky enough to attend the quarter-final match between the U.S. team and Germany. As I looked around the crowd of future soccer stars, many sporting the jerseys of their favorite players, it felt great to know that they finally have superstars of their own to look up to. And as role models, you couldn't ask for a better group than the women of the U.S. soccer team.

After the Americans defeated Germany in a heart-stopping battle that night, veteran defender Brandi Chastain had this to say: "You're going to make mistakes in life. It's what you do afterwards that counts."

Six minutes into the game, Chastain had passed the ball into the U.S. net, putting Germany ahead by one. Her reaction: "Now, we have to score two goals." She not only went on to score for her team early in the second half, but then, took the game-winning penalty kick in the championship match against China.

I couldn't help but wonder how many teams would have stood behind Chastain after that first mistake or let her take the deciding kick in the championship game. But over and over again, this team has exhibited a spirit that's both unique and unbeatable.

There's 33-year-old Michelle Akers. The only remaining member of the original U.S. squad, Akers has scored more World Cup goals -- 12 -- than any other player in the world, despite a dozen knee operations, multiple broken bones and an eight-year battle with chronic fatigue syndrome.

Another veteran is Mia Hamm who, when asked what it's like to be the best in the world, adamantly responds that she's only one of 11 players on the field. A tenacious and dedicated player, Hamm's example off the field teaches her young fans important lessons about life's other challenges. Devastated by the death of her 28-year-old brother, Garrett, she established a foundation to educate people about the National Bone Marrow Registry. "His illness and death gave me the courage to stand up and ask for help, and to understand I can do some things for people with the opportunities I've been given," she explained.

Co-captain Julie Foudy also has some lessons to teach about the responsibility that goes with celebrity. An outspoken opponent of child labor, two years ago, Foudy traveled to a region near the Himalayan Mountains, where 90 percent of the hand-stitched soccer balls in the world are made, to assure herself that children were not being used to produce the balls. For her work, soccer's international governing body awarded her its Fair Play Award --the first time the honor had gone to an American or a woman.

Soccer fans around the world marvel at the performance of the U.S. team, wondering how they've gotten so good in a country that's come to soccer relatively late in the game and boasts no professional league for women -- at least not yet.

Part of the answer lies in Title IX, the federal law that, in 1972, began to even the playing field for male and female athletes. Title IX came along just as the suburban soccer boom was beginning to sweep the country, encouraging exceptional players like Chastain, Akers, Hamm and Foudy to dream of becoming world-class athletes someday -- just like the boys.

But another part of the answer lies in the dedication and support each team member has for her teammates. Whether baby-sitting for each other's children or flying overnight to participate in an annual game to raise funds for bone-marrow research, this team knows that its success depends as much on its strength off the field as its ability to perform on the field.
On behalf of soccer fans everywhere, I want to thank the women of the u.s. team for hosting -- and winning -- a thrilling Women's World Cup.

To find out more about Hillary Rodham Clinton and read her past columns, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at www.creators.com.


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