Payback

shirt scan0001 There was a lot of unfavorable comment about celebrations by the U.S. women's team at last year's Olympics. The goal celebrations, particularly commented on after the New Zealand game, actually seemed tame to me, not all that different from what you see at men's games all the time, but I did think that the saying on the T-shirts that the Americans donned after the final was way over the top. It made me think of a similar post-game celebration in which the powerhouse U.S. women's team of the 1990s was on the receiving end.

If you were to ask the women who formed that 1990s team what was their most satisfying victory, I think you might get some surprising answers. Many probably would say the 1999 Women's World Cup final. Some might mention other games at that World Cup, or the 1996 Olympic final. But a few surely would cite a less famous game, the 2-1 victory over Norway in the semifinals of the 1996 Olympic tournament.

The reason for that has to do with the behavior of professional athletes. Soccer players may celebrate wildly after scoring goals, but they often are a bit more restrained at the end of the game. This is not as true as it used to be, but a few decades ago, winning players were more likely to exhibit a satisfied smile after the final whistle than a whoop and a holler. The behavior tended to mirror that of a pro baseball player after hitting a home run. The unwritten rule there is: Don't celebrate too exuberantly; don't stand and admire the flight of your home-run blast. The thinking is that if you humiliate the pitcher, you may pay for it later.

This viewpoint explains why the Americans approached that 1996 game against Norway with some payback in mind. They had been devastated by the outcome the previous time they'd played Norway in a major tournament, in the semifinals of the 1995 Women's World Cup. Norway scored the only goal of the 1995 game in the 11th minute. For the last half-hour of the game in Vasteras, Sweden, it seemed that an American equalizer was inevitable. The defending champions knocked on the door (and the woodwork) repeatedly, but the final whistle came first. As the Americans slumped on the field, their reign as world champions over, they viewed the unrestrained celebrations of the Norwegian team with more than a little bitterness. They felt that the Norwegians went out of their way to rub it in, particularly when they crawled around the field in a sort of conga line on hands and knees. That gesture probably wasn't really intended as a taunt, but try telling that to the Americans. "I burned it into my head," goalkeeper Brianna Scurry told writer Jere Longman a few years later. "I was determined to knock a few Norwegians around." Said captain Carla Overbeck: "For some of us it was the worst day of our lives."

It was only 13 months later that the same two teams met again in the 1996 Olympic semifinals in Athens, Ga. The American team was nearly the same one that had played in the Vasteras game; the same captain, nine of the same 11 starters and most of the same reserves. By no means had they forgotten the humiliation of the Norwegian celebrations in Vasteras.

The Americans almost didn't get their revenge in 1996. Norway led for nearly an hour after Linda Medelen's goal in the 18th minute. Michelle Akers finally tied the score on a penalty in the 76th minute, after Hege Riise had handled in the area. Norway was a player down because Agnete Carlsen had been sent off, but it had suffered the same disadvantage in the Vasteras game and survived. This time, it didn't. Shannon MacMillan came into the game as a substitute in the sixth minute of overtime, and four minutes later got the golden goal. She outlegged the defense to a pass from Julie Foudy and slotted the ball home.

Did the Americans give as good as they'd gotten a year before in the post-game celebrating department? Not likely. They well understood the effect that it could have. They must have done a lot of smiling, however.