RIO DE JANEIRO: It started with “Zika!” taunts from the Brazilians and wound through the Amazon before a surprising exit for the United States. It ended with heartbreak for the hosts and first-time gold for Germany. The women’s soccer tournament at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics had a little bit of everything – and Hope Solo.
The US goalkeeper was the lightning rod of the tournament, irking fans in the South American nation when she posted a photo of herself covered with mosquito netting and armed with insect repellant on social media. Fans booed her mercilessly and hollered “Zika!” each time she kicked downfield. Then, when the three-time defending champion US team fell on penalties after a 1-1 draw with Sweden in the quarterfinals, she caused a stir when she called the Swedes “a bunch of cowards” for bunkering defensively.
Sweden’s coach Pia Sundhage, who led the US team to gold medals in Beijing and London, replied by stating: “It’s OK to be a coward if you win.” Solo’s comments drew a rebuke from her own federation and the International Olympic Committee. Even teammate Megan Rapinoe told NBC she was disappointed. Controversy aside, the early US expulsion from the tournament was shocking. The Americans, ranked No. 1 in the world, were coming off a triumphant victory in the Women’s World Cup last summer.
They had won gold in all but one Olympics since the women’s game joined the event in 1996. Carli Lloyd and Alex Morgan got off to good starts until a concerning draw against Colombia to cap the opening stage in Manaus, the Amazon city with moths the size of tennis balls. Sweden sent the Americans to their earliest Olympic exit ever in the very next match in Brasilia. Sixth-ranked Sweden would go on to bump Brazil in the semifinals – again on penalties after a scoreless draw – for a spot in the gold-medal match against old friend and rival Silvia Neid’s German team. The match at Rio’s iconic Maracana Stadium was Neid’s last as a coach.
The two-time FIFA coach of the year had long planned to step down following the Rio Games. Beating Sweden 2-1 for the gold sent her out in style. “I don’t have any words to describe it properly, but when you reach your goal it is just that moment of pure joy,” said Neid, who will next work as a scout for the team. “It doesn’t matter if it’s a World Cup, European Championship or Olympic Games, this is what you’ve earned from your weeks and months of hard work.” Sweden claimed the silver and Canada won its second straight Olympic bronze medal with a 2-1 victory over host Brazil in Sao Paulo.
The Olympic tournament was spread over many of the same cities used in the 2014 men’s World Cup. Canadian captain Christine Sinclair scored in the victory for her 165th career goal in her 250th appearance for the national team. It was only after the bronze medal was hung around her neck did she reveal that her father had passed away two months before the games. Brazil’s inability to medal was heartbreaking for Marta, the talented five-time FIFA world player of the year, who was finally getting the attention she has deserved from her native country. Earlier in the tournament, when the eventual gold-winning Brazilian men’s team and star Neymar were struggling, some fans crossed out his name on their No. 10 jerseys and wrote in hers in magic marker. At one match, fans cheered her by chanting “Better Than Neymar.” While there is speculation the 30-year old Marta may retire – she made her international debut at 16 – she told reporters she hadn’t made a decision just yet. But she did have a plea to soccer fans in Brazil as the women’s game continues to struggle for backing from both its federation and the public. —AP