Sometimes it takes a lifetime to become an overnight sensation. So it is with Hope Solo. I am a huge fan of hers. My wife thinks it’s because she’s beautiful. While her hotness is not debatable, my fanboy attraction comes from other sources and times.
The thing about Hope Solo is she’s a drama in three acts.
Act I: the fiercely loyal daughter.
The Solo family is shrouded in mystery. Her father Jeffrey, was of Italian descent and grew up in the Bronx. He was a Vietnam War vet. He taught her how to play soccer. Her parents divorced when she was six and she lived with her mother but Solo maintained a close relationship with him, and he was a major influence in her life. Depending on what you read, she either described him as a homeless man, or refused to describe him as homeless. There was much about her father that no one seemed to know, including his real name. He was variously known as Jeffrey, Johnny and Jerry. He lived in a tent and may have been in a witness protection program.
What is known is that she fiercely supported him and valued his advice. He served as her inspiration with his candor and effervescence. “He’d call me from a pay phone, and we’d pick a place to meet. And I’d make him macaroni and cheese, and we’d sit in the woods in a tent and talk for hours,” she says. “He understood life and sports, and that’s why he knew me so well.”
Although he attended all of his daughter’s games at Washington, arriving four hours early to watch her warm up, he’d never seen her play for the U.S. women’s team. He’d looked forward to being at the Brazil game June 23 in East Rutherford, N.J., and giving Solo a tour of the Bronx. But he died suddenly in June 2007, eight days before he could follow through with those plans.
She had dedicated a championship in the 2007 World Cup to his memory, but fate would intervene in her tribute.
Act II: the iconoclastic competitor
Solo was the starting goalkeeper for the United States in the 2007 FIFA Women’s World Cup, giving up two atypically soft goals against North Korea.Whether it was due to tournament nerves or being unsettled by her father’s death, she managed to raise her play in the following matches and notched three consecutive shutouts against of Sweden, Nigeria and England.
Heading into the semifinal match against Brazil, her world would be turned upside-down: her coach, Greg Ryan, would bench Hope and choose to play 36 year-old Briana Scurry, hero of the 1999 World Cup and 2004 Olympics. His rationale was that Scurry had played well against Brazil in the past, even though she had not played a complete game in three months. The U.S. lost to Brazil 4–0, playing much of the match with 10 players after midfielder Shannon Boxx received a second yellow card at the end of the first half.
On the way from the field Hope was stopped by a crew from CBC Sports and asked for comments. Despite an effort from the USWNT Press Officer, Aaron Heifetz, to prevent her from speaking, she went on camera and criticized Ryan’s decision:
“It was the wrong decision, and I think anybody that knows anything about the game knows that. There’s no doubt in my mind I would have made those saves. And the fact of the matter is it’s not 2004 anymore. It’s not 2004. And it’s 2007, and I think you have to live in the present. And you can’t live by big names. You can’t live in the past. It doesn’t matter what somebody did in an Olympic gold medal game in the Olympics three years ago. Now is what matters, and that’s what I think.”
And that’s when it all hit the fan. Riding the fine edge between showing confidence and turning on a teammate, a brouhaha ensued. Although Solo attempted to clarify and apologize, her coach and most of the players turned against her. Her interviewer, Erin Paul went on record as saying:
“Agree with Solo or not, I think she had incredible guts to speak out about what was clearly a terrible decision. I don’t regret asking her for the interview, but I do regret how that interview has hurt her reputation.”
Coach Greg Ryan announced that Solo was off the team and would not play in the third-place match against Norway the following day, a decision that team captain Kristine Lilly indicated the team as a group supported. The U.S. went on to win against Norway 4–1, and during this time Solo was ostracized by the rest of the team, not even allowed to eat with the other players. Carli Lloyd was the first and one of the few players to stick by Solo through her widely publicized banishment and they are friends to this day.
And this is where I started to love Hope Amelia Solo. I listen to her words after the Brazil game, I compare them to things other male athletes have said (e.g., Mario Balotelli’s “There is only one player who is a little stronger than me — Messi. All the others are behind me.” or Cristiano Ronaldo’s thoughts on why he is kicked and booed, “I think that because I am rich, handsome and a great player people are envious of me. I don’t have any other explanation.”). I don’t see where the punishment fits the crime. She had just lost her father and dedicated every game to him, even sprinkling his ashes on the field before every game. After three shutouts, she is benched and her replacement gives up four goals, sending her team to the consolation match. Hope became a pariah for speaking her mind and violating an unspoken code of women’s sports: don’t speak openly, don’t show confidence and don’t rock the boat.
Solo participated in the post World Cup tour, having a contractual right to play, but Ryan did not use her in any of the games. The two seemed to remain at odds through the end of 2007 when US Soccer fired him. Ryan was gone, but her teammates remained, fairly united in their disdainful shunning of her. Her father was dead, the World Cup was wrested from her fingers and her team had made her an outcast. She had hit bottom in every sense of the word. But where there’s life, there’s hope. What would happen next is an amazing story and the subject of my next post.