x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

A Fair game

The World Cup winner Lorrie Fair reveals how women's football became big news in America.

Lorrie Fair spent three years playing professionally in the US, but now spends a lot of her time coaching.
Lorrie Fair spent three years playing professionally in the US, but now spends a lot of her time coaching.

There is a memorable interview on the Late Show with David Letterman when the American actor Matt Damon, he of the Jason Bourne trilogy, does a watertight impersonation of Matthew McConaughey's Texan drawl, and pokes fun at his friend's willingness to shed his shirt in movies. In a patriotic summer of 1999, America's female footballers were used to Letterman and whipping off shirts, a riotous snippet in time when "soccer" became big box office and the US cavorted around California holding a World Cup trophy.

A native of that state, Lorrie Fair was the youngest member of the side at 20. She watched as Brandi Chastain buried the winning penalty against China, and twirled her top around her head before 90,000 fans at the Pasadena Rose Bowl. Fair continues to drink in the moment a decade on. A training pitch in Abu Dhabi, where she can be found coaching kids as part of her remit with the English club Chelsea, is far from the madding crowd of LA.

Aged 30, she is more my fair lady, than girl, but if you listen long enough, one can conjure up images of the days of her life. Such an exalted moment in the sun was perhaps not the modern-day equivalent of the women's libbers burning their bras with Chastain in a sports bra, but such popularity resembles a cultural phenomenon. America is a nation that has shied away from football, certainly in the men's game, because its citizens do not like the concept of a 0-0 draw, the outcome that catapulted them into the penalty shoot-out against China.

"The American people grew to like that team in 1999. It was a summer when there didn't seem to be much going on," says Fair. "We were filling out these massive stadiums. It became almost like a cult following. I remember we ended up on Letterman. We had these Letterman T-shirts on, but we had pulled our shorts up high enough, so the shirts went over them. It looked like we were just wearing his Letterman shirt and our football boots.

"We lined up for this picture, and sent it to him. He was on the show every week crossing off people on the picture saying: 'Called her, she didn't call me back... called her, she didn't call me back...' "It was hilarious. He had us all on as guests. It was just one of a number of surreal moments." Faint heart never won fair lady, or a World Cup. Fair remembers travelling to a game in New York with as much emotional ticker tape surrounding the team bus as JFK or The Beatles.

Jennifer Lopez sang before the final, a venue that was laced with as many fans as when Brazil faced Italy in the men's final of 1994. The only Lo in a period of highs. "We didn't realise how big it would become," says Fair. "We got letters from various people, like 'Hi, I'm so and so, I'm a mother of three. I was so inspired by the World Cup performance'. "The team were great ambassadors for the US. That World Cup was the best single women's event in US sporting history. We sold out every stadium around the country. There was all this traffic. All of a sudden, you looked out of the windows, and there were these people hanging out sunroofs waving American flags.

"It dawned on us that the traffic was for us." The US were emergency hosts in 2003, but lost in the semi-finals - as they did two years ago in China. Fair retired from the international game in 2005. She played in a semi-professional men's team before being signed by Chelsea, who participate in England's semi-professional Women's Premier League, to play and occupy an ambassadorial role. Fair has been fair game away from the pitch. "There were teams who protested every time I stepped on to the pitch because I was a girl," she says.

Women's Professional Soccer (WPS) in the US is due to emerge in March. The collapse of the Women's United Soccer Association in 2003 was attributed to smallish television ratings. Fair once played alongside England's Kelly Smith in Philadelphia. "We were part of the launch of the women's game for three years," she says. "We averaged 8,000 fans a game in Philadelphia. There was interest, and I suspect they will come back stronger this time."

Football continues to be a bastion of masculinity in traditional hotspots. The English Football Association banned women from playing until 1971. "I feel that England have reserved football for the men. Women were playing in the 1800s, when men went off to war," says Fair. "In the 1920s, 50,000 once watched a women's game. They banned them, saying it was bad for their health." The Brazilian player Marta helped oust the US in the semi- finals of the 2007 World Cup, a player described as "Pele in a skirt". Fair, who has 123 caps, says Brazil is soiled by stereotypes.

"In Brazil, it is viewed as lesbian sport," she says. "A lot of people say to us: 'Wow, you look so feminine'. You get a lot of sexist stereotypes. People ask me: 'Are there any lesbians on your team?' I think, why would you ask me that?" Fair has rejected the chance to play in the WPS as she recovers after knee surgery a month ago. "I'm moving on to the next phase of my life, but I will play recreationally," she says.

"I'm doing a trip in 2010. Cairo to Cape Town with my men's team. We're going to stop at refugee camps before we reach the World Cup finals." Such an arduous journey, but one that will hardly contain as many high jinks as the jaunt that carried an elite band of women to the Pasadena Rose Bowl and into the homes of millions. dkane@thenational.ae