When Christie Rampone took the field for the United States in the 86th minute of the Women's World Cup final on Sunday evening, slipping on the captain's armband one last time, the reverberations in Vancouver's BC Place stadium were also the echoes of the cheers that followed the first rock stars of women's soccer in this country, the 1999 national team.
Rampone was the final remaining vestige of that team, which was, at least until Sunday, the standard by which all succeeding teams have been measured. She turned 40 two weeks ago, played 10 minutes in one group-play match and watched the rest of the tournament from the sideline until those final minutes of the 5-2 title match which she entered more for nostalgic ceremony than for competitive need.
In 1999, as a 24-year-old defender, Rampone didn't get on the field much, either, except for a 17-minute stint to close out a group-play match that had already been decided. On that team, she was slotted behind Kate Sobrero and Carla Overbeck in central defense and that was her role. This time around, having decided against retirement following the 2012 Olympics, advancing age and injuries left Rampone as a reserve behind Becky Sauerbrunn and Julie Johnston.
In between those two championship tournaments, Rampone didn't just watch. She started every World Cup match in 2003, 2007 and 2011, tournaments in which the U.S. finished in second place once and in third place twice. It was good soccer against an improving international cast of opponents, but it wasn't 1999. Nothing was, perhaps not until Sunday.
Along the way during the 16-year journey, Rampone also experienced the giddy rise and slow fall of women's professional leagues in this country. Proponents of the game complain that the best women have not gotten the league they deserve. Critics, and there are always critics, say the market will decide what they deserve, and that is exactly what has happened.
The WUSA, which grandly followed the 1999 championship, began play in 2001 and folded in 2003. It was followed by the WPS and, currently, the NWSL, with each step representing a downscaling of the expectations for success. The nine-team NWSL is partially bankrolled by the U.S., Canadian and Mexican soccer federations to ensure that national team players have a league. The team salary caps are a modest $200,000, aside from the assigned national players who are paid by their federations, and the matches average a few thousand fans. Now that the World Cup cycle is complete, there is no guarantee the league's outside funding will continue in the next few years.
True believers might hope this year's championship will revive the dream of a popular, self-sustaining top league, but history indicates that if the heroics of Mia Hamm and Brandi Chastain couldn't do it, those of Carli Lloyd and Hope Solo won't be up to the task, either.
The big problem for women's soccer in this country - and for men's soccer, as well - is there aren't very many casual fans. There are the devoted followers and then there are those who tune in once every four years for a bit of patriotic fervor that doesn't carry over into overwhelming support for club play.
That's not necessarily a putdown for the game, but it does open the divide between the lovers and the haters. If one side celebrates the determination of Rampone making the squad at 40, the other side will say that no 40-year-old field player could make a men's World Cup roster. As if that were the point. (And, also, as if it were true. Roger Milla played his last Cup for Cameroon at 42.)
What the women do, consistently, is make a better product than one would imagine given the barriers placed before them. FIFA, the corrupt international federation, would never have the men play their World Cup solely on artificial surface. That was the case for the women in Canada, however, and while it wasn't ideal, the players adjusted and the matches didn't become the ping-ponging air games some predicted.
The champion U.S. federation received $2 million in award money from FIFA for Sunday's win, which is four times less than nations eliminated in group play received after the 2014 men's World Cup. Germany, which won the Cup, got $35 million. The realities of the marketplace control some of that disparity, but for an organization with reserves in the billions of dollars, it is laughably obvious the lack of respect FIFA accords women. Disgraced former president Sepp Blatter once observed that tighter shorts might hold the key to additional popularity for the women's game.
In this country - where Sunday's final was the most-watched soccer match in history, men or women - the actual state of the game lies somewhere between the entrenched opinions of its promoters and detractors. There are plenty of opportunities for women to play the game, largely thanks to Title IX and the proliferation of high school and NCAA soccer. There are, however, limited opportunities for only a very few to extend their careers beyond college.
Despite all that has changed from the time Christie Rampone joined the national team until she played her final minutes with it, that reality has not. Only the lucky are able to swim through the net that society designs to keep them out.
For those who make it, though, there is still magic to be found on the field, and cheers that can echo and hold hands across generations.