The ‘wrong-footed soccer maiden’ who bridged Manhattan, Beijing


Talese, in customary Italian suit and Panama hat, creates a new template for the modern-day soccer writer. He says of the Chinese footballer Liu Ying that “she was like a beacon drawing me toward her, illuminating possibilities. I thought of her in those terms.” (Photo © Joyce Tenneson)

On Sunday morning, July 11, 1999, I listened to my pastor, down the street from our home in Decatur, Georgia, warn parishioners about the dangers of nationalistic revelry. The occasion was the aftermath of American victory over China the previous afternoon in the Women’s World Cup final. The game finished 0–0, with the United States prevailing 5–4 in the penalty phase. “Let’s not forget the Chinese players,” our pastor said. It was the only time I have heard him, in 13 years, mention soccer within the worship context. “The TV cameras did not let us see their faces. What were their players thinking? What were they feeling as they watched all the American flags?”

Gay Talese refers to the setting at the Rose Bowl—the tableau of winning penalty-kick taker Brandi Chastain mobbed by teammates in a swirl of confetti and California sun—as a “stadium sky jet-streamed with jingoism.” Soccer, as Talese says in a Jul 16 podcast, has never been nor will it soon become the national pastime. But on this one Saturday, the lure of the unfamiliar international pastime overpowered Talese’s own lifetime affection for baseball.

Interview with Talese, from New York, Jul 16. (51:00) Download »

As the New York Yankees toiled on another television channel before surrendering to the crosstown rival, Talese, like some 40 million other viewers in the United States, could not take his eyes from the American and Chinese players. He had tuned in to watch the advertising icon Mia Hamm. But questions came to mind, not unlike those that my pastor posed in his homily. Talese, 77, a former sportswriter who calls himself “the Miss Lonelyhearts of locker rooms,” thought especially of Liu Ying. U.S. goalkeeper Briana Scurry‘s left-gloved save of Liu’s penalty effort secured the gold medal.

Talese lays out the roots of his curiosity about Liu Ying in A Writer’s Life, the chronicle of his career in literary nonfiction. He imagines Liu

sitting tearfully in the locker room. Nothing in the life of this young woman of twenty-five could have prepared her for what she must have been feeling. … Was she surrounded now in the locker room by sympathetic teammates? Was she sitting in isolation after being rebuked by her coach? … I was asking questions as if I were a born-again sportswriter with access to the locker room, and if I were, she would have been my story, she who would probably not sleep tonight and might forever be haunted by the remembrance of her woeful moment in the sun while much of the world was watching.

In China, where it is acknowledged that most parents lack enthusiasm for the birth of females, what amount of enthusiasm would greet this particular female when she returned to her homeland?

Liu’s tale consumes much more than a footnote in Talese’s 429-page memoir. Her heartbreak, in fact, takes pride of place. She provides the point of entry and coda for the career of a writer devoted to pursuing similar burning curiosities. Her loss certainly exceeded that experienced by the Yankees on July 10, 1999, and even the saga of woebegone heavyweight fighter Floyd Patterson, whom Talese had covered at the New York Times in the 1950s.

To Talese, Liu became a beacon drawing him out of depressive reverie to action, onto a plane to Beijing in Oct 99 where he would pursue Liu’s life story for the next five months.

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