President Clinton joined thousands of soccer-crazed fans watching the United States defeat China in Saturday's finals of the women's World Cup, proclaiming it an "amazing" day.
"It was the most exciting sports event I have ever seen," Clinton told the U.S. women's team in their locker room after the game.
Sporting yellow championship T-shirts, the players jumped up and down and chanted "U.S.A" as they posed for pictures with actors Arsenio Hall and Edward James Olmos before Clinton arrived.
Clinton told the women their winning performance in the double-overtime, penalty-kick shootout match was a lesson in "courage and endurance."
"It was an amazing day," Clinton said. "We learned a lot today about soccer and about women athletes."
Clinton was accompanied by California Gov. Gray Davis, political adviser James Carville, brother Roger Clinton and his family, Hollywood producers and Arkansas friends Harry Thomason and Linda Bloodworth-Thomason and Christian Correy, the husband of American player Mia Hamm. Correy is a Marine based near San Diego.
Earlier, Clinton greeted the Chinese team in their locker room. The players there crowded around him with their cameras and video recorders and lingered to have their pictures snapped with the president of the United States.
"I wanted to say to the whole team how much we admired your performance in the whole World Cup," Clinton told the Chinese team through an interpreter.
As White House staffers began to herd the press away, Clinton outshouted them to call photographers back for one pose with the entire Chinese squad.
Clinton told reporters later he had told the Chinese, "We were very honored to have them in the United States."
The president ended a cross-country poverty tour on Thursday, but decided to remain on the West Coast for the championship game at the Rose Bowl. He headed back to the White House after the game, scheduling a post-midnight arrival.
The U.S. players invited the president to attend after Clinton, his wife Hillary and daughter Chelsea saw a quarterfinal game last week outside Washington as the Americans defeated Germany to advance to the semifinals. The U.S. women later beat Brazil to move to the finals.
Neither the first lady nor Chelsea attended Saturday's game.
Adding to the tension of the championship game was a chilling of the diplomatic relationship between Washington and Beijing after NATO mistakenly bombed the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade during allied airstrikes against Yugoslavia.
In China, conspiracy theories surrounding the embassy bombing which Beijing has refused to accept was a mistake have spilled over into the sporting arena.
Government-run media raised doubts about the evenhandedness of the referees for the championship game, saying officials in previous contests between the teams favored the United Stats.
They also suggested U.S. organizers of the World Cup deliberately made the Chinese women trek back and forth across America and its four time zones in the competition's earlier rounds. But the U.S. women also played on both coasts.
Before taking in the game, Clinton relaxed in style in Los Angeles, staying in the Beverly Hills compound of supermarket magnate Ron Burkle and golfing with actor Sylvester Stallone at a country club.
During the tour of poor areas in America, Clinton visited a coal-mining town in Kentucky, the Mississippi Delta and Los Angeles' Watts neighborhood. In South Dakota, where he toured dilapidated housing on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, he stayed at the local Best Western.
©1998 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed
© 1999 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.