Published July 17, 2011
FRANKFURT, Germany – Michelle Akers finally gets why fans were so drawn to the 1999 team that won the Women's World Cup.
Akers has been following the U.S. women at the World Cup from her horse-rescue farm outside of Atlanta, and finds herself getting caught up in the drama and excitement of every game.
"That game against Brazil when they came back in the last two minutes, Abby (Wambach) got the dramatic goal — I've been trying to figure out why the '99 tournament was so moving or inspirational and I couldn't quite figure it out. I think now I understand," Akers said. "It's more about the grit and the guts and the determination that people are drawn to, and they saw that in this team against Brazil."
Akers was a pivotal member of the groundbreaking U.S. team that won two World Cup titles and the gold medal at the 1996 Atlanta Games, when women's soccer made its Olympic debut. She scored 105 goals in 153 games with the U.S., and her 12 goals at the 1991, '95 and '99 World Cups stood as the record until Birgit Prinz (14) topped her in 2007.
Marta tied Prinz with four goals in Germany, bumping Akers to third. She now shares that spot — and the U.S. record for career goals at the World Cup — with fellow American Abby Wambach, who had three goals through the semifinals.
"I'm going to have to take her out now," Akers joked. "I am so unaware of what the records are. Somebody said, 'Abby's going to tie your record.' I'm like, 'What record?' I think it's cool that (it's) Abby because she's gone through a lot. The team finds her such an inspiration and her work ethic — crash 'em up style. I think it's awesome."
Akers has been watching the U.S. games with her son, Cody, and the 6-year-old finally gets that his mom used to be kind of a big deal. Though Cody knew his mom played soccer and was on the U.S. team, he never quite knew what that meant.
"Now he's going, 'Mom, you could just go in there and score,'" she said, laughing. "I'm more looking at it from his perspective and then thinking, 'What would I be like on that team? What would it be like to play now on that team?' And thinking about what they're up against."
Akers retired in 2000 and now spends her time on her farm, where she runs a non-profit, horse-rescue operation (http://www.michelleakershorserescue.com/). She currently has five horses, along with four pygmy goats, two hens, a rooster and some cats and dogs.
The property was flooded in September 2009, and Akers has been working to rebuild it ever since. She had planned to sell some of her memorabilia to raise money for the project, but has been able to keep all of her jerseys and trophies thanks to donations — including ones from former coach Tony DiCicco and teammates Mia Hamm and Kristine Lilly.
"Even if you're not buddy-buddy, talking to you every day, there's still a bond and still a relationship," Akers said. "Fifteen years I played on that team with all these people that you've traveled with and played with and spent a lot of time with. It's kind of a cool relationship."
FAMOUS FRIENDS: The U.S. women have some friends in very high places.
President Barack Obama personally took to Twitter on Sunday to wish the Americans good luck in the Women's World Cup final against Japan, saying, "Sorry I can't be there to see you play, but I'll be cheering you on from here. Let's go. — BO." Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton shouted, "Go USA!" at the end of her news conference with the Greek foreign minister in Athens, and later called the U.S. team during its pregame meal.
Clinton's daughter, Chelsea, will be at the game, part of the U.S. delegation led by Jill Biden, wife of Vice President Joe Biden. Bernard Lagat, a seven-time Olympic and world championship medalist in track and field, also planned to be at the game, posting a picture of his kids, American flags in their hands, in front of the Frankfurt train station.
Several members of the U.S. men's team wished the women luck, including captain Carlos Bocanegra. Singer Katy Perry wished the team good luck in a video shown to the team before the game, and Lance Armstrong and Justin Timberlake were among the other celebrities watching from afar.
"Team USA, you have already made us proud," Timberlake tweeted, "but one more win would be EPIC!"
IN CHARGE: The Americans are seeing a familiar face in Bibiana Steinhaus, the referee for the World Cup final.
The German also was the referee for the United States' first game of the Women's World Cup, a 2-0 win over North Korea back on June 28 in Dresden. No yellow cards were issued in the match. Steinhaus, a FIFA referee since 2005, also was in charge for Brazil's 3-0 victory over Equatorial Guinea in the teams' final group game.
Steinhaus, a police officer, has been a referee in the second-division of the men's Bundesliga since 2007, the first woman referee at that level. She also acts as a fourth official in the Bundesliga's top division.
BANNER DAY: Japan was on the field early before the final — with good reason.
The players displayed their banner that reads, "To our Friends Around the World — Thank You for Your Support," turning so each side of the stadium could see it. The team has been unfurling the sign after each game to acknowledge the global outpouring of aid in the wake of the March 11 earthquake and tsunami that left nearly 23,000 dead or missing. The disaster has been a huge motivator for the players, who were shown pictures of the devastation by coach Norio Sasaki before their upset of Germany in the quarterfinals.