DRESDEN, Germany — Bent at the waist, her back to the goal, Marta buried her face in her hands.
Her left-footed blast from six yards (meters) looked certain to be a winner, the goal that would give Brazil’s women the Olympic gold medal and their first title at a major tournament. How, Marta would ask afterward, did she not score?
Hope Solo, that’s how.
“I just remember Marta being point-blank cracking it, and Hope stretching out and getting a hand on it,” U.S. captain Christie Rampone said. “Seeing it out of the corner of your eye, yeah, you think it’s going in. It gave us that adrenaline going forward.”
Fired up by Solo’s highlight-reel save, the Americans would go on to claim their second straight Olympic gold medal in Beijing. Brazil, eager to escape the shadow of its brilliant men’s team, went home bitterly disappointed, runners-up for the third straight time at a major tournament.
The Brazil-United States matchup in Sunday’s World Cup quarterfinals is their first since that 2008 Olympic final, and Brazil would seem to have the advantage. Marta remains the most dynamic player in the game, the FIFA player of the year for five years running, and Brazil had little trouble winning its group. The Americans, meanwhile, lost for the first time in World Cup group play and are in danger of making their earliest exit ever from the tournament.
But the Americans still have Hope, and both sides are well aware of it.
“Of course she’s a great player,” Marta said after Brazil’s practice Friday night. “But I hope I would have the opportunity to score.”
Marta hasn’t scored yet against Solo in international play — but neither have any of her teammates. Solo has started the last four games against Brazil, with the U.S. winning each 1-0. Ironic, considering it was then-coach Greg Ryan’s decision to sit Solo against Brazil in the semifinals of the 2007 World Cup that sparked such a firestorm.
The U.S. was routed 4-0, its worst loss in history, and Solo ripped Ryan’s decision afterward, saying, “It was the wrong decision, and I think anybody that knows anything about the game knows that.” Ryan kicked Solo off the team, not even letting her be on the bench for the third-place game. A month later, Ryan was essentially fired.
“We all respect Hope and we all love Hope,” Lauren Cheney said. “We know she’s great person and a great soccer player.”
Just check out that save in 2008.
Brazil had dominated much of the Olympic final with its dazzling speed and control, forcing Solo to make one save after another. But it looked as if Brazil would break through in the 72nd minute when Marta made a run down the left side. Kate Markgraf and Heather Mitts caught up to her and took the ball away for a second, but Marta got it back and blasted a shot from just outside the 6-ya rd box.
Solo, tucked alongside the near post, leaned forward, thrust up her right arm and smacked the ball away.
“Amazing. Amazing,” Shannon Boxx said, still in awe three years later. “I just remember thinking, ‘Oh my God, that’s just going in.’ And then knowing Hope saved it. … I’m just glad she’s on our side because teams that face us, they know she’s the last person before the ball goes in the net. It gives us confidence, and it probably puts a little bit of extra fear into the other team.’ ‘
Much has been made about the Americans’ recent vulnerability, with the two-time World Cup champions losing four games since November after going unbeaten for more than two years. But Solo was the starter for only one of those defeats, and even Iker Casillas would have been hard-pressed to stop Lisa Dahlkvist’s penalty or Nilla Fischer’s deflected free kick in the 2-1 loss to Sweden on We dnesday night.
(Solo did come on for the second half of the 2-1 loss to England in April, her first game back after the shoulder surgery that kept her out of World Cup qualifying, but England had already scored both its goals.)
Including the two goals against Sweden, Solo has allowed just five since the Olympic final.
“We’re so confident with her back there,” Heather O’Reilly said. “It’s also nice to see the frustration on attackers’ faces when they think the ball’s in the back of net and she’s able to get her fingertips on a shot that nobody else might be able to.”
Of course, Marta can do things nobody else can, either.
She scored twice against Norway, and had a hand in two of Brazil’s three goals against Equatorial Guinea in Wednesday’s final group game. Despite being tightly defended, she made a low pinpoint cross into the center to set up a score by Cristiane, then won a penalty that Cristiane converted.
“There’s a rivalry, definitely,” Solo said. “We know each other, we respect one another, we’ve played on All-Star teams together. Yet we don’t speak a lot — which is the nature of the mystique of a goalkeeper against one of the top goal scorers in the world.”
Marta did get a goal off of Solo in the WPS last year.
“So I hope I can score again on Sunday,” she said.
But there’s more to this game than simply a Marta vs. Solo showdown.
Brazil-U.S. has developed into one of the game’s great rivalries, with Brazil losing to the United States in the last two Olympic finals but knocking the Americans out of the World Cup in 2007. The U.S. beat Brazil in the 1999 semifinals, then beat China for its second World Cup title.
“It’s Brazil-U.S. It’s a big game,” Marta said. “It’s special.”
Notes: O’Reilly said the strained groin that kept her out of Wednesday’s game against Sweden is “100 percent better” and she’ll be ready to play Sunday.