- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 22, 2001

Mia Hamm got an early Christmas present this week when FIFA, soccer's world governing body, named her the first FIFA Women's Player of the Year. For Hamm, it was a pleasant ending to an otherwise rough year.

America's most visible soccer player began 2001 with a nagging shoulder injury but managed to lead out the Washington Freedom for the inaugural game of the new women's league at RFK Stadium in April. But it was tough going for the Freedom. The club drew the biggest crowds in the Women's United Soccer Association (WUSA), but with a 6-13-3 record, failed to make the playoffs. Hamm played six positions in the Freedom's ever-changing lineup and scored just six goals.

"It was a kind of quiet year for me," Hamm said on the phone from her home in Texas this week, "but this award is a great gesture from FIFA. I've seen the game grow so much with the league kicking off this year, and to win this award is just an added bonus."

The pressure was on Hamm from the moment WUSA kicked off, and her every move was noted. A local gossip writer even attacked her for being aloof with autograph-seekers at a Baltimore Orioles game.

Hamm conceded that it's not always easy dealing with the pressures of fame but says the attention comes with the job.

"That is not a burden," said Hamm, a product of Burke's Lake Braddock High School. "That's one of the greatest things, when you see girls wearing your number. It's awesome. Sometimes I fall short, some days are tough, but I push through. There are times when I could have done more for the fans."

Since moving to the Washington area this year, Hamm has been involved in a number of service projects and often spends up to 20 minutes (I timed her) signing autographs after games.

Hamm said the WUSA learned many lessons from its first season and expects to do a better job next year.

"Obviously, we made some mistakes, like playing a game in the middle of the biggest girls' tournament in the area," she said. "Next season we hope to make it easier for the girls to come out and watch the team."

When she's not playing, Hamm likes to watch English Premier League soccer on TV and has a soft spot for London club Arsenal. She admires the Gunners' French striker, Thierry Henry.

"He's such a great finisher," she said. "It's great to watch the English game because the fans are so close to the field."

Even a subpar season has not dimmed the attention Hamm receives. This week she was named the most sought after female sports spokesperson in an independent survey conducted by Alan Taylor Communications, Inc. In the survey Hamm gained 22 percent of the votes ahead of Anna Kournikova (17 percent) and Venus Williams (11 percent).

Meanwhile, WUSA has signed a broadcasting deal with Paxson Communications, which will televise a full schedule of games in 2002 and 2003. PAX TV, which reaches 84million cable households, will broadcast 22 games live on Saturday afternoons at 4p.m., beginning in April.

Awards Portuguese and Real Madrid striker Luis Figo was named the FIFA World Player of the Year with 250 votes, beating out a strong challenge from Manchester United midfielder David Beckham (238) and Madrid teammate Raul (96).

Figo will lead Portugal against the U.S. team in the opening round of the World Cup in June.

Costa Rica won the award for most improved team, while Honduras was named FIFA Team of the Year for its strong World Cup campaign, even though it fell short.

England striker Michael Owen was named European Footballer of the Year this week in a vote conducted by France Football magazine. The Liverpool star is the first English winner since Kevin Keegan in 1979. Owen, 22, came out ahead of Raul, German goalie Oliver Khan and Beckham.

FIFA rankings The U.S. team slipped four places to 24th in this month's FIFA rankings and fell eight places overall this year.

World and European champion France finished the year No.1 for the first time since the rankings began in 1993. France had 812 points, followed by Argentina with 802, and Brazil, last year's No.1, with 793. Portugal, Columbia, Italy, Spain, Netherlands, Mexico and England completed the top 10. … The U.S. team will play Germany at Rostock on March27 and will reportedly play a friendly against Ireland in Dublin on April17.

Roundup The United States and South Korea have formed a joint military committee to coordinate anti-terrorism measures during the World Cup finals. The U.S. team will play in South Korea during the first round of the 32-nation tournament. …

Manchester United's Old Trafford will stage the Champions Cup final in 2003, the first time since 1992 that an English stadium has played host to Europe's most prestigious club competition. … Cesare Maldini, a former player and coach for Italy's national team, was named Paraguay's coach this week and will lead the nation at the World Cup.

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