By Alex Tresniowski
July 26, 1999 12:00 PM

Aha! It has been only 24 hours since the U.S. women’s soccer team won the World Cup in dramatic fashion, and already their wholesome, goody-goody act is starting to give way. The players are in a parking lot in Disneyland following a raucous victory parade when, ravenous and seriously sleep-deprived, they begin barking out the forbidden foods they most desire. “Doughnuts!” yells midfielder Julie Foudy. “Chili cheese fries!” screams defender Joy Fawcett. “Oh, be-have,” implores team leader Mia Hamm, doing her best Austin Powers. But, no, the girls get even rowdier, tearing into bags of pink cotton candy and giggling nonstop on the team bus en route to a rally in Los Angeles. Victory-crazed athletes run amok? Actually, says forward Tiffeny Milbrett, “it was more like a slumber party.”

Forget the Spice Girls, these are the Nice Girls—a genuinely clean-cut and entirely charming collection of 20 world-class soccer players who have emerged, with apologies to Ricky Martin, as the pop culture story of the year. Their knuckle-whitening overtime victory against China in the finals of the Women’s World Cup on July 10 drew a deafening crowd of 90,185 to the Rose Bowl in Pasadena as well as about as many TV viewers—40 million—as the NBA finals. And this was for soccer—played by women, no less. But in an era in which drug tests, DWIs and quadrillion-dollar contracts are as much a part of the sports lexicon as slam dunks and double plays, the exuberant athletes touched a nerve with their display of grit, hustle, skill and unmistakable passion for their game. “From day one we’ve played because we love to play,” says Mia Hamm, the 27-year-old scoring sensation. “People got excited about the team and said, ‘Maybe I ought to go check those girls out.’ ”

Certainly David Letterman got a little worked up while flirting with comely defender Brandi Chastain on his show, dubbing the squad “babe city” and proclaiming himself “team owner.” And count President Clinton among the entranced as well: He rushed into the locker room after the gold-medal win and thanked the team “for the gift you have given the United States.” Their reaction? “We splashed champagne over his head,” says Chastain, 31, the newly minted media darling who elatedly stripped off her jersey after her game-winning penalty kick. Even supercool Hollywood types like Arsenio Hall, Ben Affleck and Jack Nicholson turned into unabashed cheerleaders at the Rose Bowl. “Someone asked Jack if he loved women’s soccer,” reports forward Kate Sobrero, 22. “And he said, ‘No, but I love women.’ ”

It seems their World Cup runneth over with goodwill, an outpouring of affection and admiration that’s likely to continue as the team takes an extended victory lap around the country. Right after their draining final match—in which both the U.S. and China went scoreless for 120 excruciating minutes before goalkeeper Briana Scurry blocked Liu Ying’s penalty kick, giving the U.S. a 5-4 shoot-out win—the players and the crowd erupted in a frenzied celebration, led by a shirtless Chastain. “I lost control, I guess,” she says of the most brazen bra display this side of Madonna. “To me it symbolized shedding the weight of the whole tournament. Just letting go and taking a big sigh of relief and saying, ‘We did it! We won!’ ”

The euphoria continued at a victory bash at Pasadena’s Ritz-Carlton Huntington Hotel Saturday night. “We par-tied our brains out,” says Sobrero, who joined several players for after-hours dancing at the Santa Monica nightclub Lush. Even married mother of two Joy Fawcett, 31—who, like teammate and mother of one Carla Overbeck, 31, trained and traveled with her young offspring in tow—called in a sitter so she and husband Walter could cut loose. “We didn’t get home until 3 a.m.,” says Fawcett.

Still, the team was up en masse for a parade at Disneyland Sunday morning. (The only missing player was veteran Michelle Akers, 33, who was injured and suffered dehydration late in the final game and spent the following few days recuperating.) To cheers from thousands of flag-waving fans, Team Too-Good-To-Be-True danced and swayed aboard several floats, with Mia hamming it up alongside Mickey Mouse. As if to prove that fairy tales do come true, the exquisitely skilled Hamm—women’s soccer’s answer to Michael Jordan, and his costar in a Gatorade commercial—had earlier been reunited with husband Christiaan Corry, 26, a Marine Corps pilot stationed on Okinawa. Corry received a special leave of absence to attend the World Cup final and spend some time with his wife—a dispensation reportedly arranged by President Clinton himself. “The long distance can get tough for both of us,” says Hamm, who hadn’t seen her husband in several weeks and whose eyes welled with tears while discussing him. “That he was here and got to see me play meant so much to me.”

Afterward, the team flew to New York City, arriving at 3:30 a.m. Only hours later, they turned up on CNN, Good Morning America and NBC’s Today, lobbing autographed soccer balls to fans outside Today’s midtown studio. After some much-needed shut-eye, the revelers continued Monday night at Manhattan’s China Grill, followed on Tuesday by another rally, this one outside NikeTown in Manhattan. Team members signed autographs, posed for photographs and whipped out their own cameras to shoot the fans as well as each other. “I want to remember as much of this as I can,” said Tracy Ducar. Then the team finally disbanded.

On July 20, though, most of the gang will get together again for an appearance on Late Show with David Letter-man. A couple of months of rest, followed by a training period that starts this fall, will prepare the team for its next big challenge—defending its 1996 Olympic championship at next summer’s games in Sydney. What’s more, their World Cup win raised the possibility of a professional women’s soccer league, which seemed only a dream a few months back. “What the World Cup did was show that we can play great soccer and draw in the crowds,” says forward Kristine Lilly, 28, who headed away a potential 100th-minute goal that almost surely would have won China the title. “There are no excuses now. We are doing it, and we are right in your face.”

“We” is a word that crops up regularly around the golden girls, who managed to avoid any major squabbles despite the presence of an obvious star in Mia Hamm. “Mia is a coach’s dream, because she keeps deferring back to the team,” says skipper Tony DiCicco, who successfully followed Hamm’s directive to “coach us like men, but treat us like women.” Born in Selma, Ala., and raised mostly in Texas by Air Force Col. Bill Hamm and his wife, Stephanie, an administrative assistant, Hamm excelled on the coed soccer team at Notre Dame High School in Wichita Falls, Texas. “She always showed discipline beyond her years,” says her former high school coach Lou Pearce. Hamm became the youngest-ever national team member when she joined the squad at 15 in 1987, going on to score more than 100 goals—and to exemplify the team’s ebullient style. “She’s just one of those people that you want to be around because she’s fun,” says teammate Cindy Parlow, 21. “She’s always cracking jokes.”

Hamm may be the team’s go-to girl, but its gutsiest—and oldest—member is Michelle Akers. The 5’10” Seattle native—daughter of psychologist Bob Akers and former wife Anne, a retired firefighter—led the team to a World Cup win in 1991 and the Olympic gold medal five years later. Along the way she came down with chronic fatigue syndrome, a disease that is still with her but which she controls through dietary changes and willpower. “She’s the heart of this team,” says Hamm. “Her being out there gives us so much.”

While Akers anchors the team’s stingy defense, its newest star, Brandi Chastain, gives it some offensive sparkle. Looking every inch the California girl she is, the blonde and buff Chastain—nicknamed Hollywood by teammates—caused a stir among the media by posing nude for the current Gear magazine. “She lives life on the edge and does whatever she does with passion,” says husband Jerry Smith, 38, the head women’s soccer coach at Santa Clara University. Chastain insists that her high profile helps motivate her young fans. “When we were kids, we didn’t have women soccer players to look up to,” she says. “That’s why everyone on this team is so accessible.”

Equally serious about her role-model status is goalie Briana Scurry, 27, the only African-American starter on the squad. One of nine children raised in the Minneapolis suburb of Dayton, Minn., she started playing soccer in fourth grade. “I was usually the only African-American on any team I played on,” says Scurry, who believes her World Cup performance—she shut out China during regulation and made a spectacular game-winning save on one of China’s five penalty kicks—could help her in introducing soccer to the inner cities. “It’s not so much a weight that I carry; it’s more like a banner.”

Together the team’s 11 starters and 9 subs—who receive an average salary of $40,000 to $50,000—trained for six months at a camp outside Orlando before beginning their magical championship victory tour with a 3-0 win over Denmark. Five matches later, the World Cup—and a $50,000-per-player bonus—was theirs. Bonuses aside, several players are already cashing in with endorsement deals. Leading the way, not surprisingly, is Hamm, who, in addition to pitching a special Soccer Barbie, is signed by Nike, Gatorade, Fleet Bank, Earthgrains, Powerbar and Dreyer’s ice cream—contracts that reportedly earn her more than $1 million a year. Teammates Kristine Lilly and Cindy Parlow represent Adidas (Lilly is also signed by Hyundai and Coca-Cola), while more deals are likely to follow now that the women Letterman calls “soccer mamas” have hit it big. “Madison Avenue is looking for a feel-good antidote to all the arrogant male superstars who can’t be bothered to sign an autograph,” says longtime soccer writer David Hirshey, who edited Hamm’s recent book Go for the Goal. “And in these women they have found a breath of fresh air.”

For now, though, it’s still possible to believe that America’s newest heroes are in it just for the kicks. “We really love the game, and we love being around each other,” says Lilly, who adds that her sweetest reward came right after the World Cup final—from her 88-year-old grandmother Pauline. When Lilly was a little girl back in Wilton, Conn., “my grandmother would always give me a dollar for every goal I scored,” she says. “And last night she gave me a dollar for my penalty kick goal.” Cotton candy, Mickey Mouse and loving grandmas—guess that wholesome, goody-goody thing is for real.

Alex Tresniowski

Ken Baker, Vicki Sheff-Cahan, Michelle Caruso, Susan Christian Goulding, Alexandra Hardy and Gabrielle Saveri in Los Angeles, Jennifer Longley in New York City, Don Sider in Miami, Anne Lang in Houston, Mary Green in Chicago and Susan Gray in Washington, D.C.