How the USWNT revolutionised the women’s game and their challenge to remain there at this summer’s finals

How the USWNT revolutionised the women’s game and their challenge to remain there at this summer’s finals

Under a baking California sun, nearly 91,000 screaming fans – many of them teenage girls – packed into the Rose Bowl 20 years ago for a game of football. With another 40 million watching on televisions across the United States, the game was more than a sporting event. It would go on to define a generation of women and inspire in young female athletes the chance to dream. 

That July match was the 1999 Women’s World Cup final featuring the United States and China. After a tense stalemate and 120 minutes of scoreless football, the match went to a penalty shootout. The Americans would prevail after defender Brandi Chastain’s memorable kick pierced the net.

Her celebration – dropping to her knees and ripping off her sweat-soaked shirt to reveal a black Nike sports bra – would become the most indelible image of that victory. The image would grace the front pages of newspapers and magazines that week and was replayed countless times on television. That footage lives on in the form of YouTube videos. Like her childhood idol George Best, Chastain became forever a part of football history. “I don’t know. I kind of lost my mind,” Chastain said of her now-famous celebration soon after the match. “I thought, ‘This is the greatest moment of my life on the soccer field.’ And I lost control.” 

The United States, not known for its football success, cemented its name in the game’s history. After hosting a glorious men’s tournament in 1994 and with Major League Soccer helping to develop players and win new fans, football had become “an American game”, alongside the country’s traditional ones such baseball and basketball.

Indeed, winning that trophy was more than a victory. It marked a seminal moment in women’s sports history. The outcome forever changed the sporting landscape in the United States and around the world. The Women’s World Cup was elevated in status and the US brought respect to female athletes of all sport. Playing like a girl, long considered an insult, was now a compliment. 

This summer marks the 20th anniversary of that World Cup success, famous for Mia Hamm’s goals and Michelle Akers’ stamina. Two decades later, that team remains a trailblazing side and an inspiration to the current side aiming to recapture the title in France. In all, the US has won three World Cups – the last one four years ago – and is a four-time Olympic gold medalist. The players are focused on adding a fourth star to their crest, while also appreciating the players of the past. 

Read  |  In celebration of Mia Hamm, the ultimate trailblazer for the women’s game

US striker Alex Morgan, who grew up just 20 minutes from the Rose Bowl, said she has become friends with many members of that famous side. “The 99ers had a huge impact on me while I was growing up and my passion for wanting to play,” said Morgan, who was ten years old at the time. “I am friends with a lot of them now and I still draw inspiration from them. They’re great people who really helped shape the history of this [national team] program. I will be forever grateful to them. Now it’s our turn to make our mark.”   

The 99ers, as they are affectionately known, paved the way for the current generation of American stars. The team held a 20-year reunion in April and got some quality time with the players on the current team ahead of their friendly against Belgium in Los Angeles. The 99ers were in the crowd that day. The US won 6-0; not too different from how that team two decades ago dominated opponents. After the game, the players were called on to the pitch, where they received resounding applause from the crowd. Many of the teenagers in attendance were not been born when Hamm and her teammates achieved the ultimate success. 

Following that victory in 1999, the United States saw a surge in the popularity of football not seen since the days of Pelé and the New York Cosmos in the mid-1970s. Despite the US’s past successes, Chastain has remained humble all these years later. “I am not sure we are trailblazers,” Chastain said. “We were just doing the job to the best of our ability and nothing less. It is with that focus and desire that inspires others to push themselves and therefore they become inspirational, too.” 

How did the United States ever become a footballing powerhouse? The US would not be the power it is without Title IX, a law passed in 1972 that prohibits discrimination on the basis of gender in federally-funded education programs and activities. The women’s team has its roots in the mid-1980s. They won the inaugural World Cup in China – known at the time as the World Championship – and the first gold medal ever contested at the Summer Olympics in 1996. Akers was the team’s top scorer at that first World Cup with ten goals, including two in the final against Norway. The 99ers and their success was bolstered by Title XI and the growth of women’s football at the college level.  

Hamm, a member of both those winning teams, made her national team debut aged 15. After playing at the University of North Carolina, one of the most successful college teams in history, Hamm became the nation’s best player and a humble leader. In time, she would also become the face of American football and perhaps greatest female footballer of all-time. “We started getting opportunities and attention outside the soccer community,” Hamm said of the Atlanta Games. “I remember after winning the gold medal and walking around … you had people come up to us and say, ‘Oh my God, we never watched women’s soccer but I was at your final.’ And they knew all of our names. And we were like wow.”  

Looking back, Hamm said the victory in 1999 was “something that none of us understood.” “It was like holding back tears, goosebumps … never in a million years did you think you’d get that opportunity,” Hamm recalled. 

Read  |  Julie Ertz in conversation: the USWNT star’s life in football

The team’s core – Hamm, Akers, Carla Overbeck, Julie Foudy, Kristine Lilly and Brianna Scurry – stayed together throughout much of the 1990s, culminating in that 1999 success. Despite pay disputes with the US Soccer Federation, which continue to linger, the team persevered after demanding better wages and training conditions. As a result of those disputes, Foudy had become a larger presence on the pitch and in the dressing room. As a result, she was nicknamed “Loudy Foudy” by her teammates given her quick wit and penchant for candour. 

The success of the US team, however, failed to speak enough interest in a domestic league. The Women’s United Soccer Association began in 2000 and inaugurated its first campaign in April 2001. The eight-team league was the first in the world where the women were paid professionals. After the money and interest dried up, the WUSA was forced to fold after just three seasons.  

A second attempt at a pro league began in January 2008 with the advent of Women’s Professional Soccer. Comprised of ten teams, the league would cease operations after four years. The interest that the Women’s World Cup brought to women’s football proved once again to be temporary. Americans, it seemed, were happy to support the national team, but had little appetite for clubs such as the Los Angeles Sol and Boston Breakers. 

A third league, called the National Women’s Soccer League, was created in 2012 after the demise of the WPS. Bankrolled by the US Soccer Federation, the NWSL began in 2013 with eight teams. The league exists to this day and all of the US’s 23 players travelling to France play with NWSL clubs. Although the league plays before relatively small crowds and pays low wages, it remains a place for female footballers to get regular game time. 

These days, Foudy remains a political activist and works as a broadcaster with ESPN. The team’s most vocal player these days is midfielder Megan Rapinoe. While she said the woman’s game has come a long way over the past two decades, more can be done in the area of equal pay and investments that federations around the world regularly make for the men. While battles continue off the field, the players on the current roster remain focused on the upcoming World Cup and aren’t giving any thought to their own legacy.  

“I just hope that [women’s football] it’s so much better than it is now,” Rapinoe said. “I hope the [NWSL] is in a better place, more robust. This team, hopefully, continues to grow, continues to be successful. I hope what stays the same is how successful the team is on the field. That’s something that this program has always had and that’s at the core of everything that we do.”   

In March, 28 players escalated their long-running feud with the federation over pay equity and working conditions by filing a gender discrimination lawsuit, accusing the federation of “institutionalised gender discrimination.” That discrimination, the players said, has affected their income as well as where they play, how they train and the quality of travel between games. 

Read  |  Carli Lloyd and the unforgettable 13-minute World Cup final hat-trick

Similar grievances had been felt by many of the 99ers, resulting in their boycotting of a tournament in Australia in January 2000, months after their World Cup victory. This most recent dispute comes after female footballers around the world have complained about everything from the use of artificial turf and smaller World Cup bonus payments compared to men, to inferior referees. Indeed, the success of the national team has also given them a platform to enact change and fight for equality. 

At the same time, the game on the pitch has improved globally. US captain Carli Lloyd, who will be playing in her fourth World Cup this summer, admitted that the women’s game has improved over the past two decades. It has improved to the point that the US will need to raise their game in order to defend the trophy won four years ago in Canada. “It’s growing and growing. That’s what we love to see,” Lloyd said about women’s football. “It’s good to see the support. Obviously, there are positive-negative comments throughout. If people aren’t talking about us, it means we’re not doing our jobs.”  

Manager Jill Ellis said the team has to learn from past mistakes in order to achieve success in the future. Ellis recalled that the quarter-finals of the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio – where the Americans were eliminated by Sweden on penalties – as the moment she realised the world had caught up with the United States. “There are different teams rising and it’s going to be a very open World Cup,” she said. “We’re excited to go out there and attack it.” 

The Americans will open their World Cup defence on 11 June against Thailand, playing in only their second World Cup after qualifying for the 2015 tournament. In 2016, the United States handed Thailand their worst defeat in history after a 9-0 drubbing.   

English-born Ellis, who has managed the United States since 2014, said she’s ready to guide her adopted nation to the ultimate prize again. Before Ellis and her players make plans to play in the World Cup final on 7 July in Lyon, the team will need to focus on getting out of the group stage and potentially defeat other favorites along the way such as host nation France, Germany, Brazil, Sweden, Canada and Japan.     

“I’m really fortunate to have an incredibly professional group of women,” Ellis said. “There is no divide and it is very much a cohesive unit. The players understand that we support them and have their backs on and off the field. We need to be this way. I think it’s only natural when you go off together and try and accomplish something incredibly huge.”  

By Clemente Lisi @ClementeLisi 

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