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As we poured into the stadium later that evening, we were surprised to find that there were not enough kiosks selling souvenirs. Given what we'd learned, one could imagine that the people involved had little sense of who women's soccer fans are (or what we want).
Lines at the one large, fully-stocked shop (and there was only one) were so long, most decided not to risk missing the opening of the match. Which was just as well: They were out of scarves an hour before kick-off. They were soon out of the match t-shirts, too. And they had far too few shirts that might fit men. Most guys went home with nothing for themselves.
But, as our guide might say, "Whatever." It was never why we were there. We were never there for the swag, merchandise - to fuel that bottom line. We were there for the game.
But the marketing of women's football is still a big topic of conversation, especially concerning survival of the US's domestic league, Women's Professional Soccer. And while those conversations are important, when (I ask) did we become not fans, but consumers - waiting to be told by guys in suits what it is that we want?
When is women's soccer a sport, when is it a "product?" "Product" is what the media gives us - and yes, we want more. But "game" is what the players give us, and you don't need a TV to see it.
Perhaps it is wildly utopian of me, asserting that the game comes before "the product" - that fans have a lot more say in the support of that game than we tend to believe.
That tension between product and game - between the vision of those who run the sport with the passion of those who follow it - explains why, within the span of a few hours, I was able to go from the utter disaffection of FIFA's marketing executive to the totally sincere, realistic and loving attitude of the people attending the World Cup via USSF's "family program."
Dancers perform prior to the FIFA Women's Football World Cup final. (AFP PHOTO/JOHN MACDOUGALL)
For both the US's semifinal and final of the Women's World Cup., I had the very good fortune to sit in the USSF's family section, with midfielder Lori Lindsey's family. A substantial crew flew out to support "Lightning Lindsey," who never made it onto the field in the games I saw (though he played a full 90 minutes against Columbia).
Everyone had their own cheering section - not just Hope Solo, Abby Wambach or super sub Alex Morgan. "Pinoe" (midfielder Megan Rapinoe) had her own support, as "Mitzy" (Heather Mitts), Shannon Boxx, Becky Sauerbrunn, and Christie Rampone.
The atmosphere in this section of the stands was unique. If people were tense, they were also used to that tension. In a way, they've been sitting there for years.
People cheered with a warmth and realism guided by an intimate knowledge of players' efforts and struggles.
When one US player committed a foul, a guy behind us muttered, "Well, at least she didn't beat the s--- out of her." The whole section started laughing. It broke the tension. He might have been talking about his own daughter or niece. The chorus of laughing recognition suggested that a sense of "family" extended to everyone in the section. It was also a moment of mutual recognition: Everyone wanted the win, very badly.
How many years have these folks sat together, watching each other's daughters and sisters and friends play? The Wambachs and the Solos; the Cheneys and O'Reillys. How many years have they been going to games - big, high pressure games, and watching their kids nail a header, ship a cross to a striker's moving foot, stop an unstoppable goal?
Or run out of steam, get beat, fail? Draw a red card, blow a corner. Get hurt. They've seen their kids at their best and their worst.
One member of this collective slipped out of the stands when the game went to penalties. He never watches them. Everyone knew this and made room for him quickly to slide out of his row. What was probably done once a decade ago to spare his heart has, over time, become part of a ritual - something one wouldn't change, just as the families appear in pretty much the same regalia, match after match.
This has to be one of the main ingredients behind the "grit" people associate with the US women's squad. The women on the team have grown up supported by family and friends integrated into a stable development system (whatever that system's flaws).
There is a social cohesion to the scene, the kind that provides the confidence to launch oneself into the world - to be ambitious. It's a consistency that allows you to reach beyond your grasp, knowing you have the room to fail the first few times you try to do so. And if you do, you can just get back up again, and the people in the stands will still be there, rooting for you.
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