I spent four weeks in Italy for the men's World Cup soccer championships in 1990, bouncing from Florence to Naples to Turin to Rome to cover games. I saw men fall down kicking balls into nets, and I saw men fall down getting kicked in the knees.
I spent more weeks running around the United States for the men's World Cup of 1994, flitting from Pontiac, Mich., to Palo Alto to Pasadena. I saw a red-goateed American with the made-for-L.A. name of Lalas who looked like George Armstrong Custer--although photographs of Gen. Custer in shorts are rare--and I saw a red-Afro'd foreigner named Valderrama with so much hair he resembled a two-legged tumbleweed.
These were two of my favorite months among jocks of all trades. I can take or leave a typical game of baseball, a sport in which nine men run out onto a field and stand still. I find little or nothing passionate in golf, a sport in which people walk slowly up to a ball that isn't moving and hit it.
Soccer, though, is a splendid sport in person, no matter if the score is 0-0 (as it so often is). And over the years, World Cup soccer has become the biggest sporting event in the world.
But there was always something missing out there on the fields of battle, where men were men and women were spectators. Why couldn't the women be the ones out there on the field, footing the ball?
Welcome to the end of the millennium of men, and to the dawn of the age of women.
"I am the quintessential soccer mom," says Marla Miller, who lives in Newport Beach with three daughters and a husband who coaches a youth soccer club.
In her own school days back in Chicago, what "being involved in sports" meant to Miller was a chance to become captain of the cheerleading squad. Which she did.
Then later she became a psychiatric nurse, before moving out to Southern California in the early '80s.
A girl didn't get into team sports with the same purpose or enthusiasm then as now. The heroes--does anyone still say "heroines?"--for aspiring female athletes in those days were individuals, gymnasts or swimmers, figure skaters or tennis stars, not team players.
Even as recently as autumn of 1997, a full year after American teams had dominated the women's events at the Atlanta Olympics, a girl had to look through a magnifying glass to find someone on a team to idolize. Miller's youngest daughter, Jessica, was 10 then and working on a school assignment to do a short biography of someone she admired. She admired our national women's soccer squad.
"We searched high and low," Miller says, "through publications for stories about the U.S. women's soccer championship team. We found one article."
Miller found herself wondering aloud why somebody didn't write an entire book about this interesting team.
Her daughter asked: "Why don't you?"
From the mouths of babes.
A free-lance writer and host of an Irvine radio program, Miller knew an excellent idea when she heard one. Next thing she knew, she was off to New York for the 1998 Goodwill Games to "audition" for the U.S. women, to see how they would accept her as author of an authorized book about their bid for '99 World Cup glory.
"I've interviewed a lot of people in my day, but you know what? I was really nervous," Miller says. "Because of my daughters, I revered this team. For me, it was like meeting the Beatles."
The audition must have gone OK.
Miller's new book, "All-American Girls," is now on the stands, while more than 92,000 fans Saturday at the Rose Bowl will be up in the stands, watching America's team.
A scene behind the scenes: After a two-hour practice at Giants Stadium, a group of exhausted, sunbaked U.S. athletes approached meltdown on a bus in stalled Manhattan traffic.
"Stop the bus! Stop!" one abruptly called out. The driver did, and was worried something was seriously wrong when Tiffeny Milbrett, Julie Foudy and Shannon McMillan wanted off.
Turns out they had spotted a popular coffee shop, and were dying for a cold Frappuccino. While they were gone, though, the gridlock eased and the bus left. The three soccer players had to chase it up the street.
"Look," Milbrett said when she got back on, holding up the iced coffee. "They gave it to me for free."
No way, you U.S. women. Whatever you have gotten so far, you have earned.
Mike Downey's column appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Write to him at Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles 90053. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org