Selma, Alabama is famous in the American consciousness as a major site during the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous marches from Selma to Montgomery in 1965 were directly responsible for the creation of the Voting Rights Act in the same year. It was a monumental decision that significantly equalised the racial scales in the southern states.
It seems fitting that the city’s proud history of begetting strong leaders would continue in the next decade. On 17 March 1972, Mariel Margaret “Mia” Hamm was born. She would go on to revolutionise the sport of soccer in America, becoming both the leading scorer and creator in international games for both genders. However, that is not the only factor that sets her apart. She somehow managed to do it in a world made by men, of men, and for men.
As the daughter of an Air Force pilot, she grew up around the world on different military bases. As such, she was unable to make too many long-lasting friends as a child. The only constant was her older brother Garrett. He was adopted at the age of eight, when Mia was five, and they instantly bonded as playmates.
As they grew older, Garrett became the model sporting son; he was good at American football, basketball and soccer. Trying to emulate Garrett, Mia tried her hand at all sports as she hung out with her older brother’s friends. When Garrett was diagnosed with Aplastic Anaemia at 16, this only drove Mia to further heights. She was determined to let her brother live vicariously through her, and she refused to let his disease beat them both. By the time she had turned 15, the family had moved back to America, and she was selected as the youngest member of the nascent US Women’s National Team (USWNT).
The USWNT had only been founded in 1985 and, at the time of Hamm’s call up, was managed by Anson Dorrance. Dorrance was famous as the hugely successful coach of the University of North Carolina’s women’s soccer team.
In the late 1980s the USWNT was severely underfunded and under-appreciated by the USSF, and he realised that their only chance for success was to gamble on the new crop of talent that was coming through at the time. With already established players like Michelle Akers and April Heinricks in the team, Dorrance decided to bring through the fresh-faced quintet of Hamm, Kristine Lilly, Brandi Chastain, Julie Foudy and Joy Fawcett.
The future of women’s soccer in the US depended on these youngsters, all aged between 15 and 19. By the time Hamm, Foudy and Fawcett retired in 2004, the USWNT had won everything under the sun and changed a nation’s perception of both football and, more importantly, female athletes. Central to this transformation was the role played by Mia Hamm.
Alongside her call up to the national team, Hamm was also having incredible success at the amateur level. In junior high school she excelled on the boys’ team – as there was no girls’ team. Similar success at the high school level, often playing with girls older than her, eventually led to an offer from Dorrance’s old stomping grounds, the University of North Carolina.
At UNC, Hamm led her college NCAA team to immense success. She was an All-American and Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) Player of the Year for her last three years, and also won the ACC Female Athlete of the Year in 1993 and 1994. By graduation, she held the ACC records for goals scored (103), assisted (72), and total points (278). She had led her college team to four out of five NCAA championships in her time at UNC, losing only once in her 95 games. The only year where they failed to win the championship, in 1991, Hamm was not involved as she was preparing to join the USWNT for the inaugural Women’s World Cup in China.
Although it was organised and sanctioned by FIFA, the world body for football was nervous about the response a female-only tournament would receive. Thus, it was officially known as the M&M’s Cup. Hamm and the USWNT breezed through their matches to set up an intriguing final with Norway.
In a titanic tussle that would foreshadow one of the greatest international football rivalries of all time, the US emerged victorious following an immense performance topped off by a brace by Michelle Akers. While the tournament was a roaring success, with Chinese crowds filling stadiums to watch the action, the US public had largely ignored their tournament winners. The USWNT had been sent off without fanfare and victoriously returned to JFK airport in New York to exactly three people. For a country that was to host a football World Cup in 1994, they seemed distinctly uninterested in their best players.
By 1995, a newly graduated Hamm was preparing to meet up with her team-mates to prepare for the World Cup in Sweden that year. There would be no quintet for this tournament, as Brandi Chastain had been frozen out for an ill-conceived move to Japan in a bid to become a professional footballer. Around the same time, Michelle Akers was diagnosed with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.
• • • •
Read | The greatness of Marta in a still-sexist game
• • • •
As a result, going in the competition, the USWNT were still confident, but were lacking the powers of two of their main stars. Akers’ problems in particular would prove detrimental, as her knee injury in the semi-final precipitated a loss to Norway. Their opponents’ gloating celebrations post-match would lead to an animosity best summed up by the USWNT’s nickname for their rivals – “the Viking bitches”. In terms of media exposure, there was a little more interest from the US compared to 1991, but the national team’s loss derailed that.
The USWNT would soon have a chance to redeem themselves, as women’s soccer was represented for the first time at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. This was a dream come true for the players; a chance to represent their country at the biggest stage, in America. However, as was usually the case for the USWNT, they were stabbed in the back by their own administration.
The USSF refused to provide the women the same compensation as they were offering the men’s team and a standoff ensued. As the tournament rolled on, the USSF tried to call the USWNT’s bluff by calling up several of the B team for the Olympics, including Brandi Chastain. The USWNT stayed strong, however, and were soon offered bonuses for both gold and silver, with up to US$20,000 for the best players.
With the quintet reunited and a ruthlessly determined Akers more in control of her disease, the USWNT stormed towards the gold, even managing to gain revenge over Norway along the way. Most impressively, they managed to break the record attendance for a soccer match in the States, with 76,489 people at the final. As usual though, the media rained on their parade by not broadcasting the match live. It seemed that they were forced back a step for every two they took forward.
The 1996 Olympic win would prove to be a turning point in the popularity of both Mia Hamm and the USWNT. The attendance record at the final had brought together people of all demographics to support a previously unknown team playing the fifth most popular sport in the country. It was a feel-good story to end all others, and Mia Hamm was the public image of the story.
Suddenly, her face was plastered across billboards and on television advertisements, advocating everything from shampoo to shoes. She was even placed alongside Michael Jordan, the sporting icon of the 1990s, in an early Nike commercial. The sportswear giants would eventually name the largest building in their corporate headquarters after Hamm after she broke the all-time international scoring record in 1999.
However, this public success was swiftly followed by personal tragedy. Garrett Hamm, who had improbably managed to attend the 1996 final in person, succumbed to his illness the following year. His death devastated his younger sister, who was lost without him.
Days later, the USWNT was playing a match and Hamm decided to turn on the TV. Her team-mates and best friends had all lined up with black armbands to commemorate Garrett’s passing. Overcome with emotion, she realised that she still had family out there on the pitch, and resolved to continue playing for the USWNT, for both Garrett and her team-mates.
This closeness was reinforced in her first match back for the national team as they all strove to help her score a goal. Hamm later said that when she finally put the ball in the net, after twisting and turning in the box, there was an enormous emotional release as she celebrated through a huddle with her best friends. Off the field, she moved on from Garrett’s death by setting up the Mia Hamm Foundation to benefit those people who need and benefit from bone marrow transplants.
On the back of their success and their infrastructure, FIFA decided to grant the 1999 Women’s World Cup to the USA. With question marks over how a women’s soccer tournament was to fill up the giant American football stadiums, many of the USWNT stars got involved with grassroots efforts. They travelled the country performing training sessions and motivational performances as they aimed to both sell tickets and inspire a new generation of girls.
As many of the quintet can attest to themselves, they had barely any female sporting icons growing up. There were no footballing women to emulate, either in America or abroad. They wanted to make sure that their success would not be wasted, and that their achievements would stay within the minds of aspiring sportswomen across the country. On the field, the reigning Olympic champions were fit and ready to regain their World Cup title.
However, as seems to happen far too often to the USWNT, their relevance was questioned by the media. During the final pre-tournament press conference, the issue of empty stadiums was again brought up. Ignoring the fact that it is the duty of the media rather than the team to whip up fervour, the journalist continued by calling the USWNT a disgrace to American sporting tradition. While the players laughed the question off during the conference, they were worried about it themselves. They shouldn’t have given it a second thought.
From the first match to the last, the crowds packed into the stadiums to make 1999 the most successful World Cup yet. They had sold more tickets than the entire 1995 tournament before a ball was even kicked. The USWNT matched this off-field support with some sumptuous on-field performances. Scoring 18 goals and conceding only three in the five matches leading up to the semi-final, they had undoubtedly been the stars.
All roads led to the Rose Bowl in Pasadena on 10 July 1999, and a pulsating encounter with China, led by the irresistible Sun Wen. In one of the most exciting 0-0 draws in footballing history, Michelle Akers played like a hurricane, disrupting any and all possible Chinese forays forward. When she left the field in dire need of medical attention due to her fatigue levels at the start of extra-time, the USWNT feared the worst. In the era of the ill-fated golden goal, the Americans defended like their lives depended on it.
The Chinese pushed forward, sensing weakness in the American ranks without Akers. However, all they found was a mature and professional performance, led by the mesmerising quintet who were all at the peak of their powers. And so, on to penalties and that famous celebration by Brandi Chastain.
“True champions aren’t always the ones that win, but those with the most guts.” Mia Hamm
Despite breaking the record for attendance at a football match again, with over 90,000 fans in the stands, the media still decided that their focus should lay on trying to create a controversy over a footballer taking off their shirt. Luckily, despite the contemporary problems, that image of an overwhelmed and overjoyed Chastain has come to represent what it should – a moment of pure, glorious triumph that no one can take away from the USWNT.
Hamm’s career since that fateful summer night was mixed in nature. Losses in the 2000 Olympics, to Norway, and the 2003 World Cup were offset by a tremendous send-off at the Athenian Olympics in 2004. Going in to the tournament, the quintet had now become the senior most members leading the new generation into the light.
Players like Abby Wambach, who would eventually break Hamm’s international scoring record in 2013, saw this tournament as a way of repaying the older players for their service. There was never any doubt as to who was going to win gold that year. On the flip side was the creation of the Women’s United Soccer Association in February 2000, off the financial success of the World Cup. It was the first professional women’s league in the world and a proud final accomplishment for the quintet.
Despite a strong start, including attendances and TV ratings that dwarfed the MLS, by 2003 the league had folded due to dwindling audiences and a lack of corporate sponsorship that was guaranteed in the male game. Of course, the ever successful Hamm was able to win the Founders’ Cup in 2003, continuing her perfect record in all tournaments.
Mia Hamm announced her retirement in 2004 due to a desire to give her body a rest, and to start a family. Unlike Fawcett, who unbelievably had three children and came back to top-level soccer each time, Hamm had put it off until the end of her career.
However, that doesn’t mean that she is not still involved in football. She hosts an annual celebrity game to fund the Mia Hamm Foundation. Additionally, she is a global ambassador for Barcelona and was appointed to the board of AS Roma in October 2014. Around the same time, she also revealed she was one of many celebrity minor partners involved in the creation of the Los Angeles MLS team, set to join the league by 2017.
Hamm finally ended her USWNT career with 158 goals in 275 matches. Among her more prestigious acknowledgements have been a third placed finish in the list of greatest female footballers of the 20th century, as well as the first two FIFA women’s World Player of the Year award in 2001 and 2002. She and Michelle Akers are also the only two women – and the only two Americans – to have been named in Pele’s famous list of the 125 best living players. Additionally, she has a smattering of personal and team trophies that would take too long to list here. She may quite possibly have been the most successful player of all-time had their been a professional league for women during her heyday.
But to praise her because of her trophy list misses the point. She was a brilliant player – truly brilliant, not just in a misogynistic “compared to women” way – but she also changed the world. She went from being an obscure, semi-professional athlete to the biggest name in American soccer in less than a decade. She is by far the most well-known female football player, as her popularity has transcended the sporting community.
Through a combination of skill and incredible determination, Mia Hamm pushed soccer to the forefront of American consciousness. And not just soccer, but women’s soccer. The fact that Alex Morgan and Hope Solo are as well-known as Tim Howard or Landon Donovan today is because of Hamm. She blazed a trail so bright that American soccer players of both genders are still basking in its afterglow.
If a traditional champion is someone who is victorious, and Hamm’s definition is someone with the most guts, there can only be one person who fits both criteria. That little girl learning soccer from her beloved older brother in Italy has undoubtedly grown up to become the greatest football player in the history of the United States of America.
By Tarutr Malhotra. Follow @sixthfebblog