WEMBLEY, England (AP) — The game was nearly as grand as the stage, in doubt until the last seconds and so important that the winning country's commander in chief was following it back home. Across town, Usain Bolt was doing in London what he did in Beijing, but for 80,203 people at Wembley Stadium and the two best women's soccer teams in the world, this was their Olympic moment.
Soccer always has been little more than an afterthought at the Olympics, but this was different. This was the U.S. and Japan before the biggest Olympic soccer crowd ever — a flag-waving, cheery throng that made noise from the beginning to the end — and this was a night to celebrate no matter which country took home the gold.
Carli Lloyd and Hope Solo made sure it was the Americans winning their third straight soccer gold, with Lloyd doing all the scoring for the U.S. and Solo — perhaps the best female goalie to play the game — batting away almost everything aimed her by an increasingly desperate Japanese squad. The final was 2-1 Thursday night, and then the fun really began for a team that has lived for the past year with the pain of a shootout loss to Japan in the World Cup final.
They leaped in the air in jubilation, ran in search of teammates to hug, and grabbed U.S. flags anywhere they could find them. The Japanese players lined up in the midst of it all and bowed to the crowd.
A few minutes later the U.S. players stood together on the gold medal podium, singing the national anthem. Then they lingered on the field, as if they didn't want the moment to end.
Hard to blame them. On a beautiful British summer night, it was magical.
"Eighty thousand people for a women's final?" Lloyd said. "That says a lot about women's sports. When we go back home it's going to be bigger."
Unfortunately, recent history says otherwise. A full stadium and President Barack Obama following the game while on a campaign swing in Colorado notwithstanding, women's soccer is still facing a very uncertain future.
This wasn't Brandi Chastain ripping her shirt off in celebration in a 1999 World Cup win at the Rose Bowl that everyone thought would inspire millions of little girls in America to play the game. We've been there already, only to find out that big games don't always translate into big things.
It will be three years before the U.S. women get a chance to play a match that means this much again, four years before they will defend their Olympic title. The excitement of the Olympics match will abate as did the buzz from last year's World Cup, though the same problems that have bedeviled the women's game for the last 13 years will remain.
"The attention they're getting here may just be what the women's game has needed," said Julie Foudy, who was on the 1999 World Cup team and two gold-medal winning Olympic teams. "But we thought that way in '99. We thought we had it made then."
This group of players will try to ride the momentum of its gold medal win with a celebration tour of 10 games or so. They should be able to draw decent crowds, though nothing approaching the packed house at Wembley.
Indeed, except for having the home team playing, the gold medal matchup couldn't have been any sweeter. The U.S. was trying to exact revenge for a World Cup loss in Germany that exposed flaws in a team that has dominated women's soccer since it was introduced in the Olympics in 1996. The players were into it, and so were the fans, waving flags of both countries and building into a loud crescendo whenever either team had a chance to score.
Lloyd had lost her starting job before the Olympics, only to get it back when Shannon Boxx was hurt, and she took advantage of her opportunity. She scored the winning goal for gold against Brazil in Beijing and she scored both American goals Thursday night, one on a header in the first half and the other with her foot early in the second. Solo made sure the U.S. stayed on top with several saves as the Japanese swarmed inside and controlled the ball much of the game.
Helping direct it all was Abby Wambach, the veteran forward who now has three gold medals.
"I'm the lucky one," Wambach said. "I really do feel like the fact that we can participate in such an amazing event, play in front of over 80,000 people, biggest crowd I've ever played in front of, and come out on top — this is the dream that we've all been thinking about and feeling for the last year since the World Cup."
If this was a Hollywood script, it would be written with the women coming home as national heroes, signing big contracts to play in front of adoring fans. But the first pro league launched on the wave of enthusiasm after the 1999 World Cup folded after losses in the tens of millions, and a more recent league also went under after only three years.
There are few places for Solo, Lloyd, Wambach and others to play while waiting for the next World Cup in 2015 or the next Olympics a year later. And there's no glut of benefactors waiting to pay players so they can continue to sharpen their skills.
"A night like tonight you like to think a lot of things are possible, but reality hits when you wake up in the morning," Foudy said. "And the reality is we don't have enough owners with deep enough pockets to make it work. It's still an uphill battle to convince people to sustain women's sports on the professional level."
On this night, reality would have to wait. This was a time to celebrate, a time to enjoy just how good the women's game has become.
A grand night at Wembley, indeed.