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How the 1999 World Cup changed women’s soccer in America



How the 1999 World Cup changed women’s soccer in America

Women’s basketball is in the middle of a transformational surge in popularity, thanks to the star power of Caitlin Clark and a crop of talented young players in college basketball and the WNBA.

Twenty-five years ago, women’s soccer experienced a similar transformation thanks to its own superstars, the ‘99ers, who led the U.S. women’s national soccer team to the 1999 FIFA Women’s World Cup final — and then won it in a penalty shootout, 5-4.

That win — the team’s second World Cup title — not only solidified the U.S. women as a powerhouse in the world of soccer, but it also turned the country’s budding interest in the sport into a full-blown romance.

Members of the legendary 1999 team spoke with the Deseret News ahead of the 25th anniversary of the final on July 10, reflecting on how that tournament changed women’s soccer.

Remembering the 1999 FIFA Women’s World Cup Final

Brandi Chastain should have been warming up on the pitch. After all, she was roughly two hours away from the most defining moment of her career and a major milestone for U.S. women’s soccer.

Instead, she was running up and down a damp and musty corridor in the Rose Bowl, kicking a ball against the nearly 80-year-old walls. It was July 10, 1999, and a sold-out crowd of more than 90,000 fans were waiting for the U.S. to face China in the 1999 FIFA Women’s World Cup final.

Brazil and Norway were playing the third-place match on the same field, forcing Chastain and her teammates to move their warmup routines indoors.

When Brazil finally won in a penalty shootout, the American and Chinese players still couldn’t get their traditional warmups started, since pop star Jennifer Lopez opened the final by performing and filming the music video for her song, “Let’s Get Loud.”

By the time the pomp and circumstance ended, Chastain had only enough time to kick the ball around on the field maybe three times before the match started.

“(We were) just laughing because what do you do? You can’t let it get to you, and you might as well embrace it,” Chastain told the Deseret News.

Their lack of a warmup didn’t show as the U.S. quickly started attacking the goal.

While the 0-0 scoreline at the end of regulation may not reflect it, the match was gripping with several close scoring chances created by both teams. But neither team found the back of the net.

“I was so impressed with the intensity and the sheer will for both of the teams to bend so far yet not break under the pressure,” Chastain said about her first time rewatching the match.

After 90 scoreless minutes, the game moved into 30 minutes of extra time. China almost won it 10 minutes into extra time, but Kristine Lilly made an incredible save.

Lilly had been standing at the right goalpost awaiting a Chinese corner kick. The ball was served to the 10-yard line, and Fan Yunjie headed it past goalkeeper Briana Scurry. Lilly stopped the shot by heading the ball off the line to the 6-yard-line, where Chastain cleared it.

“It was one of those that you appreciate that you were doing your job right. Like we all have these jobs to do, and if you don’t do them — even if it seems unglamorous and it seems like nothing’s gonna happen — that’s when something happens,” Lilly said. “I’ve been on that post most of my career, and I’ve never saved the ball with the header off the line like that.”

Lilly’s header — and Scurry’s efforts throughout the game — kept the U.S. alive. Since neither side scored by the end of extra time, the 1999 Women’s World Cup final came down to a penalty shootout.

The United States’ Brandi Chastain celebrates by taking off her jersey after kicking in the game-winning penalty shootout goal against China in the Women’s World Cup Final at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif., on July 10, 1999. | Mark J. Terrill

China struck first with Xie Huilin converting the first penalty. Co-captain Carla Overbeck then took the first penalty kick for the U.S., tying up the score.

“As one of the leaders, you want to instill confidence in the players that are coming up after you to take PKs, and I just wanted to make sure that I put mine away so that they could hopefully do the same in the next four kicks,” Overbeck told the Deseret News.

Although Overbeck was confident in her teammates’ abilities, she couldn’t watch them shoot. She kept her head down and relied on the reactions of the crowd to know what was going on.

After Overbeck, Qiu Haiyan and Joy Fawcett both converted their penalties. Then the stakes rose when goalkeeper Briana Scurry saved China’s third kick, giving the U.S. the chance to take the lead.

Walking up to the spot to take her kick, Lilly debated changing her plan of shooting to the goalkeeper’s right after watching her dive to her right on the first two kicks, she told the Deseret News. But she stuck with her original plan and converted the penalty, putting the U.S. up 3-2.

Zhang Ouying, Mia Hamm and Sun Wen made each of their kicks, which put the fate of the game on the feet of Chastain — or, more specifically, Chastain’s left foot.

Prior to the shootout, U.S. head coach Tony DiCicco told Chastain to take the penalty kick with her left foot — something she had never done previously in a game — before he took off like a roadrunner, she recalled.

While it was absurd, Chastain trusted DiCicco and his innovative thinking — and had for a while.

After leaving her off the 1995 World Cup roster, DiCicco had brought Chastain back to the national team for the 1996 Olympics but had her switch positions. Her trust in his decision earned her a gold medal.

The Chinese goalkeeper for the World Cup final, Gao Hong, had blocked one of Chastain’s penalties earlier in 1999 in the Algarve Cup. The memory of that moment ran through Chastain’s head as she prepared for her penalty kick. She vowed to avoid making eye contact with Hong so as not to give her any sort of advantage.

“As I’m making my way to the ball and the ref, I’m just saying over and over, ‘Don’t look at the goalkeeper, don’t look at the goalkeeper,’” Chastain said. Hong later admitted she couldn’t get a read on any of the U.S. players because they wouldn’t look her in the eye.

Chastain booted the ball with her left foot into the back of the net and then gave birth to one of the most iconic celebration photos in sports history as she yanked off her jersey and revealed her sports bra — which she now has framed.

Before she even took the kick, Chastain knew that winning the 1999 FIFA Women’s World Cup would change women’s soccer in America forever.

How the 1999 FIFA Women’s World Cup proved the doubters wrong

The record-breaking Rose Bowl crowd who watched Chastain’s winning shot wouldn’t have been on hand without the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta — the first Olympics to include women’s soccer.

FIFA’s original plan for the 1999 Women’s World Cup was for the games to be played in 10,000-seat stadiums, including some college and high school stadiums and stadiums in parks.

China goalkeeper Hong Gao misses the final and winning United States overtime penalty shootout goal shot by Brandi Chastain in the FIFA Women’s World Cup final at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif., on July 10, 1999. | Mark J. Terrill

Marla Messing, the CEO and president of the 1999 FIFA Women’s World Cup organizing committee, knew that plan needed to change when she showed up to watch the U.S. women’s national soccer team play in the Olympic semifinals and final at Sanford Stadium in Athens, Georgia. She saw over 140,000 fans at the two games.

What really sold Messing on changing the World Cup venues was all of the young girls she saw wearing Mia Hamm and Tiffeny Milbrett jerseys, she told the Deseret News.

“If it had gone forward with that (original plan), there was no way the event could really capture the imagination of the public. You kind of would seal its fate and sort of send a message that this wasn’t a big-time event and that in some ways, these athletes and these teams didn’t deserve something better than that,” Messing said. “We definitely believe that they did deserve something better than that and that it was worth it to sort of roll the dice.”

In what she admits was a “very unusual” move, Messing enlisted the help of the U.S. women’s national soccer team to ensure the success of the tournament.

“Typically, an organizing committee, you know, it has to be pretty neutral about athletes and players and teams,” she said. “So it’s very unusual to have the team really help us market the event, but we also thought it was critical to the success of the event.”

The organizing committee put the U.S. players under contract to market the World Cup. Players would host clinics and sign autographs in the host cities of the tournament to drive excitement and ticket sales.

“There was a lot of naysayers out there,” Chastain said. “I think we did feel the responsibility of being on the marketing team and doing everything we could to shake hands and kiss babies and do clinics and get women’s soccer into the conversation.”

Chastain admitted that there was some concern from the players on if they could actually fill the stadiums — the previous Women’s World Cup in Sweden averaged 4,316 fans per match.

But their efforts paid off.

As the U.S. made its way from the team hotel to Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey, for its first game of the tournament, the team hit heavy traffic on the New Jersey turnpike, even with their police escort.

One of the players asked, “Why is there so much traffic?”

“When we finally realized that it was for our team, we couldn’t believe it. Just thousands of people were in the parking lot and kicking the soccer ball around. They had signs, they had their faces painted, they had our jerseys on,” Overbeck said. “It was such a huge, uplifting moment for all of us.”

Nearly 79,000 fans showed up in New Jersey for that first game, and crowds continued to show up throughout the tournament. Attendance at the U.S. games never dipped below 50,000, and the non-U.S. games averaged 20,000 fans, according to Messing.

The attendance surge culminated in the record-setting final at the Rose Bowl, which made history as the most attended women’s sporting event in the U.S. That record stood until August 2023 when the University of Nebraska volleyball team played a game in the school’s football stadium.

President Bill Clinton, center, and California Governor Gray Davis, right, pose with United States’ players from left, Saskia Webber, Shannon MacMillan and Mia Hamm, after the U.S. defeated China in the Women’s World Cup Final at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif., Saturday, July 10, 1999. The U.S. beat China 5-4 on penalty kicks after a 0-0 tie. | J. SCOTT APPLEWHITE

So many people attended the 1999 Women’s World Cup final that the stadium ran out of water on a hot summer day in Pasadena, California, and even more people were watching from home. Roughly 40 million Americans tuned into the match, according to The New York Times.

“Our goal was to sell out the arenas, which we did, but I don’t know if we thought that we were going to make an impact on so many people,” Lilly said. “We knew how great the game was, and we knew if we played some good soccer and put ourselves out there, that people would would appreciate that.

The impact of the U.S. winning the 1999 FIFA Women’s World Cup

Despite the success in 1999, the path forward for professional women soccer players in the U.S. wasn’t easy. Rather, it was like the sport had to take one step back for every two steps forward.

Still, the world of women’s soccer would not be the version that fans know and enjoy today without the ‘99ers.

Capitalizing off the success of the 1999 World Cup, the Women’s United Soccer Association kicked off its inaugural season in 2001 as the first domestic professional women’s soccer league.

“Having the pro league was the last piece of the puzzle for us,” Lilly said. “We won the World Cup, we won the Olympics, and now we wanted a pro league. So having that was huge.”

But the league folded after three seasons, and its replacement, the Women’s Professional Soccer league, also folded after three seasons.

Fortunately, that wasn’t the end of women’s professional soccer in the U.S. The National Women’s Soccer League launched in 2013 and now boasts 14 clubs across the country.

Through the NWSL, women’s professional soccer is now seen as a successful business model and investment opportunity and no longer a charitable cause, Chastain said. She’s gotten involved in the NWSL herself, becoming a founder of one of the league’s newest clubs, Bay FC.

Brandi Chastain appears on stage at Zeta Live at the New York Times Building on Thursday, Sept. 28, 2023, in New York. | Charles Sykes

When asked if she’d have that role if the U.S. hadn’t won in 1999, Chastain gave an emphatic no.

“I would say absolutely, emphatically not. It would not have happened,” she said. “So many things post that World Cup changed. My life had drastically changed from that moment and that World Cup.”

The numbers appear to agree with Chastain.

The Seattle Reign were purchased for $58 million earlier this year — far more than the $3.5 million the team was purchased for five years ago — and Angel City FC’s valuation has increased to $300 million as Disney CEO Bob Iger and his wife Willow Bay look to purchase control of the club, Semafor reported.

Messing, who served as the interim CEO of the NWSL for seven months from 2021 to 2022, negotiating the return of the Utah Royals to the league and bringing in national sponsors such as Delta, feels bullish about the future of the women’s game in the U.S., especially with the leadership of U.S. Soccer president and ‘99er Cindy Parlow Cone and new women’s national team head coach Emma Hayes.

“I feel really good about the current state of women’s soccer in the U.S. I think that the quality of the ownership groups at the NWSL are going to propel the sport to incredible levels,” Messing said. “I feel very optimistic and bullish about the future of the sport in our country, especially with those leaders.”

How the ‘99ers inspired generations of soccer players

The ‘99ers inspired a new generation of soccer players, giving young players role models who looked like them — and a glimpse of what was possible.

“We wanted to make sure that the young girls that were watching us play, if and when they played on the national team, they wouldn’t have to go through those struggles that we did for so long, and I think that was a success,” Overbeck said.

Some of those girls Overbeck mentioned were two-time World Cup champions Megan Rapinoe and Alex Morgan. Rapinoe and Morgan both watched the 1999 World Cup and went on to be some of the loudest leaders in the national team’s fight for equal pay, which it finally achieved in 2022.

“It’s a long time coming,” Lilly said. “When we were playing, we were just kind of, we were trying to get paid.”

The legacy of the ‘99ers isn’t lost on today’s young players either.

Chastain recently met a group of young girls at a Bay FC game. After taking a selfie with them, she told them to look at the field of PayPal Park.

“I said, ‘That field belongs to you, and I didn’t have that field that had women playing on it. And I want you to know that whether you’re a player or coach or a doctor, or the manager or the owner, there’s something out there for you. And you have to see that and you have to know that it’s here and I want you to know that I believe that you belong here,’” she said. “It gives me goosebumps just saying it because they need to know that there’s people out there who believe in their future.”

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