International soccer star unknown in hometown

December 26, 1991|By George Diaz | George Diaz,Orlando Sentinel

OVIEDO, Fla. -- Michelle Akers-Stahl lives the contradiction every time she leaves this country.

She is one of the most famous female athletes in the world, mobbed by worshiping fans throughout Europe and Asia. Yet at home she rarely warrants a second look at the checkout line at the neighborhood grocery.

"Around the world we get mobbed by people. They want pictures, autographs," Akers-Stahl said. "In China, I couldn't wait to get back to the United States, where I could be anonymous. It was crazy. People knocking on your hotel door for pictures and autographs until midnight."

In destinations outside the United States and in her adopted hometown of Oviedo, Akers-Stahl is easily acknowledged as one of the most proficient soccer players on this planet. She scored both goals in the Women's World Cup Soccer Championship this month that bumped the United States past Norway, 2-1, in the final.

Her 10 goals during the United States' 6-0 run toward the championship earned Akers-Stahl the Golden Boot, given to the tournament's leading scorer. She also earned the Silver Ball, presented to the tournament's MVP runner-up.

Akers-Stahl barely attracts attention in her homeland that has yet to cultivate an appreciation for women's soccer. When she returned from Canton, China, with her teammates, Akers-Stahl counted the fans waiting to embrace their international champions at JFK Airport in New York: Seven fans; eighteen players.

The sporting world still acknowledges women's soccer as a baby, yet to mature on an international level. The International Olympic Committee won't recognize it as a sport for its Summer Games. The Women's World Championship in China was the first of its kind. The players on the United States team receive $1,000 a month from April 1 to Dec. 1, a $10 per diem on the road and split a $50,000 championship pool after the final.

"If she was in any other sport and as dominant as she is, she'd be a millionaire," said her husband, Robbie Stahl. "She's comparable to Steffi Graf in tennis, Nancy Lopez in golf. Unfortunately, she gets much more notoriety in Europe than she does here. She's all over the Swedish, German newspapers."

Akers-Stahl has earned her reputation by attacking the goal relentlessly from the center position. "She's a wonderful target," United States coach Anson Dorrance said. "Her aggression and mentality for finishing are superb."

It showed in the waning minutes of the United States' dramatic World Cup victory. Akers-Stahl seized her opportunity when Norwegian defender Tina Svensson whiffed on the ball, allowing Akers-Stahl to beat the goalie to the ball and set up an easy breakaway.

"I remember I had the ball at my feet," Akers-Stahl said. "Everyone said it took me hours to shoot the ball once I beat the keeper. They said they were having heart attacks. I was at an awkward angle, so I wanted to pass it in real nice to make sure I didn't miss."

Returning to a home decorated by three dozen roses and balloons and an answering machine filled with messages, Akers-Stahl has spent the last few weeks handling a slew of interview requests. It's a contrast from the low-key lifestyle she usually enjoys at home.

"If I go on vacation once or twice a year and have enough money to buy soccer shoes, I'm happy," she said.

She began nurturing an affinity for the game while growing up in Santa Clara, Calif., and later during her high school playing days in Seattle.

Akers-Stahl went on to become a Division I All-American at the University of Central Florida in 1984 and 1986-88. She attracted as much celebrity for something she didn't do: join the NFL.

Through the efforts of her former agent, Akers-Stahl went to Long Beach, Calif., for a week for a tryout with then-kicking coach Ben Agajanian of the Dallas Cowboys.

Accurate on 90 percent of her kicks -- the farthest was 52 yards -- Akers-Stahl was considered a bona fide prospect. She said no. "I didn't want to devote my time to kicking field goals," she said.

Shortly after graduating from UCF in 1989, Akers-Stahl responded to an ad in a soccer magazine for Post-to-Post Training Center, which develops shooting skills for players.

She called the man in charge, Robbie Stahl.

As their business conversations evolved into personal ones, Stahl realized that he "would like to meet this person on the other side of phone." There happened to be a tournament in Charleston, S.C., where both were scheduled to play.

Seven weeks later, Stahl popped the question. "We were sitting around," Stahl said, "and I heard myself saying, 'Will you marry me?' "

"I didn't know what I was doing when I said yes," Akers-Stahl said. "After I said it, I thought, 'No.' I wanted to listen with my mind, but my heart spoke before I could get the right words out. But it was definitely the right decision."

They were married April 21, 1990. Now, juggling non-stop schedules, Robbie, 39, and Michelle, 25, have come to terms with their fervid lifestyle.

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