There's a tension in women's sports, and in women's soccer in particular, between athleticism and empowerment. The United States' victory in the 1999 Women's World Cup, capped off by Brandi Chastain's triumphant, shirtless pose, was perceived in America as less of a sports-world triumph than a vehicle for inspiration—one small kick by the national team, one giant kick start for millions of young girls. Sunday's quarterfinal victory by the U.S. women against Brazil, 12 years to the day after 1999's memorable win over China, was stirring for the reason every great sporting event is stirring. This was not a win for all the 8-year-old girls practicing in their backyards. This was a win by the American women, for themselves. And there can't be many teams in the history of balls, cleats, and nets that have deserved to win more than this one.
No game is perfectly fair, and the last hour of USA-Brazil seemed to be a contest to determine the far end of the unfairness scale. First came a questionable red card on American defender Rachel Buehler, who kinda, sorta took down Brazil's star Marta in the box. (I would've given her an orange card if such a thing existed.) Seconds later, Hope Solo's diving penalty kick save was disallowed, for reasons that FIFA, forever transparent, has yet to make clear. (The potential calls here—Solo moved before the kick was taken; an American player encroached on the penalty area—range from obviously incorrect to laughably strict.) Marta converted the PK do-over, tying the game 1-1, then scored again on a deft, slicing, left-footed shot in the opening minutes of extra time. The pass that freed Marta for her brilliant strike was delivered by a player who might have been offside. The assistant referee didn't call it.
At this point, Team USA was down 2-1 and seemed to be playing 10 against 12: the Brazilian 11 plus referee Jacqui Melksham. With time running out, Brazil's Erika engaged in the classic end-of-game maneuver of faking your own death, then springing back to life due to the restorative power of soccer's magically curative stretchers. The fans in Dresden hissed at this fakery, as they should have. This was the booing of sports fans scorned—the refs are against us, the other team is cheating, and this is all just so unfair.
To hear Franklin Foer, Josh Levin, Stefan Fatsis, and Mike Pesca discuss the U.S. women's soccer team's win over Brazil on Slate's sports podcast "Hang Up and Listen," click the arrow on the audio player below:
Not everything went against the Americans on Sunday. The United States took the lead on a Brazilian own goal in the second minute, and midfielder Carli Lloyd could have—perhaps should have—been given a red card for handling the ball early in the second half. It would have been entirely reasonable, though, for the U.S. women to perceive that no matter how hard they tried, they couldn't possibly win. Ultimately, that's what made this game so memorable, and so inspirational. Unlike the fans, who jeered the great Marta every time she touched the ball, the Americans never fell back on cynicism. Despite playing with 10 women for 55 minutes, Team USA kept defending, running, crossing, and running some more. When Abby Wambach headed the ball in off a beautiful cross from Megan Rapinoe in the 122nd minute—the latest goal in Women's World Cup history—it was hard not to feel like everything bad in sports had been defeated by everything good. And it was certainly poetic, as thousands of wags pointed out on Twitter, that the clock would've already run out at this point if not for Erika's fainting spell.
It was appropriate that this game ended on penalty kicks—the most-dramatic, least-fair mechanism by which to end a sporting event. American Shannon Boxx, up first, had her shot blocked by the Brazilian goalkeeper Andreia, but the referees ruled that she had moved off her line too soon. This time, ESPN's faux-impartial Ian Darke and Julie Foudy assured us, it was the correct call. (I, too, believe it was the right call, but by this point I would've been willing to endorse anything short of homicide for the USA to win this game.) Boxx made the rekick, and her teammates Lloyd and Wambach followed with powerful, precise strikes.
The game was won by Hope Solo, whose full-extension—and legal!—stab against Daiane was even more spectacular than her disallowed second-half stop. After Rapinoe and Ali Krieger hit the back of the net, the Americans were victorious. They'll now play France in the World Cup semifinals, a game that should be preemptively cancelled, as it can't possibly live up to the opening act. (In Wednesday's game, France will be playing the role of Finland in the 1980 Olympic hockey tournament.)
No one deserves the anguish Daiane is surely feeling. Not only did she miss the decisive penalty, she's also the Brazilian who kicked the ball into her own net in the first half. But that's the thing about sports: They're unfair, and they'll always be unfair.
In the 2007 World Cup, Hope Solo was benched before the United States' semifinal game against Brazil, a game Team USA would lose 4-0. It was a stupid, unjust move, and Solo was right to be angered by it. "It was the wrong decision, and I think anybody that knows anything about the game knows that," she said afterwards. As a result of her angry comments, Solo was kicked off the national team for insubordination. She eventually earned her way back on the team, and she is now an American sports hero because she, along with her teammates, reacted to an injustice in the exact opposite away. With all the calls going against them, they would've been justified to sulk and to curse and to ask what they'd done to deserve such a fate. Instead, they kept their heads up, and Abby Wambach headed in the tying goal.