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A Breakthrough Goal

A zero-to-zero tie after 120 minutes of play? Can that keep 90,000 people in their seats and millions glued to the tube?

By every standard of American sports-watching, the answer should be "no." But the Women's World Cup soccer finals on Sunday may have established a new standard.

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It certainly set a new standard for women's sports. The crowd at southern California's Rose Bowl was the biggest ever for a women's event. The game-winning penalty kick American Brandi Chastain drilled past China's goalkeeper also broke through any remaining public resistance to recognizing the superb athletic talents and heroism of half the human race.

True, it's still a long haul ahead before women's soccer becomes a viable professional sport. Corporate sponsorship, organizational skill in forming a league, and reliable fan support will be critical to that long-term project. Men's soccer is still in the process of catching on as a game the American sports, entertainment, and commercial culture can embrace.

Whatever the future of a particular sport, this World Cup leaves some indelible impressions:

*That a game with minimal scoring - no goals in the case of the finals - can still be riveting. As regulation time gave way to two 15-minute overtimes, the tension built. The final shootout, which turned on a diving save by US goalkeeper Briana Scurry, provided adequate drama for any lover of sports.

*That international athletic competition retains a flavor all its own. The Chinese team's superb talents weren't tainted by the hairbreadth outcome. The universality of skill and individual commitment, not national boosterism, is the point.

*That sports remains an arena for assessing social change, as well as individual mastery. On both scores, women have arrived.

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