ATHENS, Greece – An hour after the game, Mia Hamm (search) was still on the field, hugging, crying, and posing for pictures with an Olympic gold medal around her neck.
Then, finally, she left.
After 17 years, 153 goals and 266 games -- including a grueling overtime finale -- it was time for her to go.
"There are few times in your life where you get to write the final chapter the way you want to," Hamm said. "I think a lot of us did that tonight."
Hamm and the rest of the Fab Five had just enough left in their thirtysomething bodies for one more triumph in their final tournament together. Led by two goals from the next generation, the United States beat Brazil 2-1 Thursday to claim the Olympic title.
Abby Wambach (search), the player who might break Hamm's records one day, scored the game-winning goal in the 112th minute with a powerful 10-yard header off a corner kick from Kristine Lilly (search). It was Wambach's fourth goal of the Athens Games and 18th in her last 20 games.
The game marked the final competitive appearance together for the remaining players from the first World Cup championship team in 1991. The five helped bring their sport to national prominence and captured the country's imagination by winning the World Cup in 1999, and together they have played in 1,230 international matches.
Hamm, Julie Foudy and Joy Fawcett are retiring from the national team -- although they might play in farewell exhibitions this fall -- leaving Lilly and Brandi Chastain as the last of the old guard. Hamm plans to start a family with her husband, Chicago Cubs shortstop Nomar Garciaparra (search).
"I talked about feeling good about where I was in my life, and this is a great way to end it," Hamm said.
The retiring players left happy with the final result, but they might never want to watch a replay of a game that showed it was perhaps time for them to hang it up.
The Americans were slower, less organized, less creative and lost the chase to most of the loose balls against the young Brazilians, who weren't afraid to shove the U.S. stars around.
Pretinha scored for Brazil in the 73rd off of a rebound, and the Brazilians twice hit the post later in regulation, coming within inches of what would have been the winning goal.
"I think today, Brazil was the better team," coach Rene Simoes said. "We deserved to win."
What Brazil lacked, though, was the passion of a group of players determined to give their heroes a proper send-off.
"We were bending, but we weren't breaking," goalkeeper Briana Scurry said. "They were throwing the kitchen sink at us, but I knew we had the heart to win it."
Hamm was a nonfactor throughout the game, unable to find space to make the kind of runs that made her famous. Hamm's post-game speech in the locker room was a great big "Thank you" to her teammates.
"They carried me tonight, that's for sure," the 32-year-old Hamm said.
The U.S. team was rescued by Wambach, some great saves from Scurry and a stunning 39th-minute goal from Lindsay Tarpley, whose 24-yard drive skirted two defenders and curled just inside the left post.
"Tarp and I, it's the least we can do for the women who have meant so much to us," Wambach said.
When the final whistle blew, Hamm was quickly swarmed by all 17 teammates. The team then took a victory lap, waving flags to the crowd of 10,416 at Karaiskaki Stadium.
Hamm clenched her fists under her chin and looked to the sky with teary eyes after arriving behind the podium for the medal ceremony. Foudy, Fawcett, Hamm, Lilly and Chastain stood together at the far left -- making them first on their team to receive medals. Hamm blew a kiss to the crowd when her name was announced. Foudy smiled and helped lead the fans in a chant of "U-S-A."
Brazil received its first women's soccer medal after finishing fourth at the last two Olympics. Germany, which beat Sweden 1-0 in the third-place game, took the bronze.
The win helped erase the sting of the loss to Norway in the gold-medal game in Sydney four years ago and a third-place finish at last year's World Cup. In the 1990s, the United States ruled women's soccer, but the other teams have caught up over the last five years.
The victory also offers a measure of vindication for coach April Heinrichs, who took over after the 1999 World Cup and failed to win the top prize in 2000 or 2003.
The team was captained for the last time by Foudy, who played the entire 120 minutes just three days after spraining her right ankle in the semifinal victory over Germany.
The Americans were out of sorts from the opening whistle. They couldn't handle the Brazilian pressure and could barely string two passes together to get their possession game going.
The Brazilians came out playing very physically, pushing and grabbing whenever they could get away with it. Simoes accused the Americans of trying to hurt his players when the two teams met in a 2-0 U.S. victory in the first round last week, but this time his team was clearly the aggressor.
Scurry, while not announcing her retirement, has also said this will be her last Olympics. Her teammates had her to thank for not trailing by a goal at halftime.
Scurry dived right, stretching her body as far as it could go, to barely get a piece of Elaine's 19-yard shot in the sixth minute. In the 41st, Scurry somehow pushed away a short drive from Cristiane that deflected off Chastain, ending a furious sequence that began with an indirect free kick from 10 yards out.
Given Brazil's control of the first half, Tarpley's goal seemed to come out of nowhere. In a rare attack for the U.S. team, she found space to launch her shot from the top of the penalty box and into the upper corner of the net.
But the Brazilians kept pressing. Daniela was wide left with a low 24-yard drive early in the second half, and various crosses were just off target or gathered by Scurry.
In the final minutes of regulation, Brazil was clearly controlling the play, and their goal seemed inevitable.
Cristiane, 19, ran past 36-year-old Fawcett with ease down the left flank, then beat defender Kate Markgraf before sliding a cross toward Pretinha. Scurry could only get a hand on the pass, leaving Pretinha alone for the easy shot to tie the score.
Cristiane was just wide right with a long curling shot two minutes later, then she hit the left post with a 20-yard drive. In the 88th minute, Pretinha beat Scurry with a 16-yard shot, but it also hit the left post.
The U.S. team, the oldest in the tournament, was playing its sixth game in 16 days -- and its second straight 120-minute overtime game.
Even so, the Americans found a way to win it.
"We wanted to send them out on top," Tarpley said. "They've done so much for the women's game. To be able to win gold when some of them are retiring -- it's a great night."