The whirlwind of pre-tournament emotions is different for every player, particularly when you're on the brink of a tournament like the Women's World Cup, but I can harken back to my own experience leading up to the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens for perspective on what it's like to for a player on the eve of such an event.
As a newcomer to the US Women's National Team's squad, my reactions followed a somewhat predictable pattern. I was amazed by the grandeur of the settings - to experience a dream where all of the details escaped me, but the emotions remained vivid. At the same time, I couldn't let the Olympics themselves distract me from the task at hand. Winning gold was always my main focus. It's not often one gets the chance to compete for her country on a world stage. I wanted to make the most of my first (and, as it turned out, only) opportunity.
The veterans probably experienced different emotions. Athens was the last campaign of the "Fab-5" - Mia Hamm, Julie Foudy, Brandi Chastain, Kristine Lilly and Joy Fawcett, the superstars from the 1999 World Cup. Those stars weren't as awed by the occasion. They'd already competed in several Olympics and World Cups, though knowing it was the last time they would play together likely stirred up an entirely different set of feelings.
While veterans and newcomers may be of slight different minds, there are shared emotions. I remember repeatedly thinking, "What is going to happen? Are we going to win? I know we are prepared, but will the luck be on our side on game day?" They're questions that are in the mind of every player. To us, winning was the only possible result. Deep down, our entire team truly believed that's what was going to happen, though Germany and Brazil undoubtedly felt the same way.
So what ultimately separated us from them? Perseverance? Teamwork? Fitness? Or just plain luck? Because on the eve of the tournament, we were all likely in the same state of mind: In anticipation of one of the world's great soccer events.
Now here we are on the eve of another major tournament, and while players who are prepared will be of similar mindset, emotions and pressures will have a different effect hit each player. Not that emotions and pressures are bad things. Some pressure is necessary for a team to perform its best, though too much pressure can be crippling.
For the United States, there are a series of pressures that are unique to their squad. Born of their failure to win a World Cup since 1999 have put an impetus on winning this year. As if that weren't enough, the team has the weight of a league on their shoulders, with Women's Professional Soccer desperately needing an American victory to boost their profile. And then there is the media, and a fan base focusing on the team in a way that only happens once every four years. Still, the people who'll put the most pressure on the US are the players themselves, forcing them to raise their game to meet their own high standards.
One of best ways to handle that kind of pressure, whether you are a rookie or a seasoned veteran, is to know that you are prepared. You want to be able to affirmatively answer the question, "have we done everything possible to get ready for this?" Entering the competition knowing you're physically prepared can give your team a tremendous boost of confidence.
To that end, the US women flew to Austria on June 14th to give themselves plenty of time to acclimate before their opening game against Korea DPR on the 28th. That two week adjustment period will benefit them physically, but there also tremendous mental advantages. A week in an isolated Austrian mountain town gives the players a chance to train, increase their cohesiveness, and have some fun. It has also gives them a chance to escape from any drama or distractions at home and focus on the meeting their goals.
The German women have also been rigorously preparing for the tournament, and as the host nation, they face a different kind of pressure, with local fans expecting the two-time defending champions to retain their title. Playing at home in front of the large crowds can offer the Germans a huge boost of energy and inspiration, but over-zealousness can lead to pressure to play a perfect tournament.
Meanwhile, in the shadows of Germany and the United States, the Brazilian women somehow seem to be flying beneath the radar. From afar, it appears the Brazilian press is looking past the Women's World Cup, already focusing on hosting the 2014 Men's World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics. Lack of pressure from home aside, it is no secret that five-time FIFA Women's World Player of the Year Marta is tired of winning silver. She will be pushing her teammates towards gold after finishing second in two Olympics and one World Cup.
And as is the case with the United States and Germany, success for Brazil is defined as nothing short of winning the World Cup. Just behind the big three lie teams like Japan, Sweden, Canada, France, North Korea, Norway and England - all of whom have legitimate chances to make a run at the title, should the ball bounce in their favor. As the relative underdogs, free from the pressures played on the favorites, those teams will have the freedom to take risks on the field, risks that just might pay off. Don't be surprised to see any team from that list in at least the semi-finals.
With the field new-found parity, the ability to deal with adversity during the tournament could prove to be the great separator. Depending on which teams figure out how to cope, we could see a number of upsets and unexpected twists throughout the tournament. Come mid-July we could be left with a soccer truism, that sometimes a goalpost, a bump in the grass or a bad call is all that stands between victory and defeat.
Will the United States crumble if they suffer a surprise opening-round loss, or will they continue to display their mental resolve and never-give-up attitude? Will injuries, suspensions or flashbacks of the Hope Solo drama play a role this summer? Will the Germans worry at the first sign that their dream tournament isn't going as planned? Will they panic if their star forward Birgit Prinz strains her ankle again, or will their young talent take over the reins? Will Brazil or another underdog come out on top because they aren't feeling the same pressures that the US and German players are?
All of these questions are swirling around the minds of the players in Germany right now. Most of all, every player is wondering if their team has what it takes to win. We will begin to find out the answers on June 26th.
Kristin Luckenbill is a former United States international and Olympic Gold Medalist who played for Women's Professsional Soccer's Boston Breakers and Sky Blue FC at the end of a 10-year professional career. She will be contributing to FOX Soccer throughout the 2011 Women's World Cup.