LOS ANGELES — Mia Hamm doesn’t do a lot of interviews these days. So when arguably the best female soccer player of all time speaks on the eve of a FIFA Women’s World Cup, people listen.
Hamm, along with the rest of the 1999 United States team that won the World Cup 20 years ago and changed women’s sports forever, will be honored at halftime of Sunday’s friendly match between the Americans and Belgium. A day before the match, Hamm spoke to reporters at Banc of California Stadium, home of the Los Angeles Football Club she part-owns along with husband and former major league baseball All-Star Nomar Garciaparra, comedian Will Ferrell, NBA legend Magic Johnson, motivational speaker Tony Robbins and others.
And Hamm had plenty to say.
“This is going to be the most challenging World Cup,” Hamm said of this summer’s tournament in France, noting how Australia played the defending champion U.S. tough last week.”You have Germany kind of coming back together. The host, France, is one of those teams that, top to bottom, they are athletic, they’re dynamic, they’re technical, they’re tactical. The best team is going to win, the team that comes in and is peaking at the right time and stays healthy. The [U.S.] is definitely one of those teams that can be on the podium.”
Some members of the current USWNT were barely old enough to remember the Americans’ paradigm-shifting 1999 win, which the U.S. won on penalties over China on home soil. Forward Mallory Pugh, who scored twice in Thursday’s 4-2 victory against the Aussies, was just 15 months old. Yet the “99ers” story still resonates two decades later. As much as things have changed, Hamm, interviewed as the current U.S. squad trained just feet in front of her, sees some common threads.
“A lot of the spirit and the energy and the style of play that these women out here — and the commitment—these women play with is similar to what we had,” she said. “We enjoyed the experience just as much as the fans watching. I think you saw that when we went out and played.I think there’s a lot, obviously, that they’re still fighting for.
“And I admire them so much for continuing to raise the bar even higher in terms of the support they get. We had open training sessions, but not a lot of people came except when the World Cup happened. To see them playing in soccer-specific stadiums, we started off playing in high schools in, like, eastern Pennsylvania. So to see the opportunities they have now is wonderful. And that’s where we wanted this game to go. We wanted to continue to move further and the [current] players are obviously committed in doing that.”
Hamm, who scored 157 goals for her country in 276 games between 1987 and 2004, was of course alluding to the lawsuit the U.S. players recently filed against the U.S. Soccer Federation alleging gender discrimination.
“They believe in this fight, we believe in this fight,” she said. “I love the courage that they’ve shown and I love the fact that they’re not taking no for an answer. They’re not just fighting for each other out there, they’re fighting for the young girls that are in the stands. A lot of us have daughters and it’s not just about the game of soccer. It’s how we view and value young women in this country.”
Hamm was also asked about the possibility that LAFC, a first-class operation which has emerged as the best team in MLS in just its second season in the league, could start a women’s team to compete in the NWSL.
“It’s obviously a top priority of ours and of me personally,” she said. “Last year we were talking about it and then I think we kind of shifted focus back on getting through the first season and trying to really see kind of how we operate and what the expenses are.
“We had early discussions last year about partnering with a group,” Hamm added. “But that didn’t go in the direction that we thought because we were building such a brand here and that’s important for us to do. When we make that commitment [to a women’s team], we want to make sure we can go all in and do it right just like we’ve done with the men’s team.”
Still, the women’s game will be front and center in Los Angeles on Sunday, especially with Hamm and fellow legends like Brandi Chastain, Julie Foudy and Brianna Scurry in the house.
“I loved representing this country, I loved standing shoulder to shoulder with those women,” Hamm said. “You see a lot of history that’s here from our program. I think it’s important for us to celebrate that and obviously to show our support for the women that are on the field as they take on the world in France.
“We’ll all be cheering them on.”
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