At the #3 spot on my list of Kick Ass Women Who Inspire me are the twenty women who made up the United States’ roster for the 1999 Women’s World Cup: Brandi Chastain, Mia Hamm, Julie Foudy, Michelle Akers, Briana Scurry, Kirstine Lilly, Carla Overbeck, Joy Fawcett, Cindy Parlow, Shannon McMillian, Tiffeny Milbrett, Tisha Venturini, Kate Sobrero, Lorrie Faire, Christine Pearce, Tiffany Roberts, Sara Whalen, Danielle Fotopoulos, Saskia Webber, and Tracy Ducar.
The thing about this team is that the core group of players had been playing together on the US Women’s team for years prior to the 1999 World Cup. The core group started out together in 1987 (the year before I was born). And they would continue playing together for a few more years before they began to retire – with Kristine Lilly being the last of the core group to retire in 2010. They started out as teenagers and grew old(er) together. That’s something rarely seen in team sports. And it’s something to admire. These weren’t just individual women brought together to play in a tournament. These were a group of women who were already a team long before the opening game of the 1999 World Cup. They formed the first ever US women’s soccer team. They had no history to live up to because there was no history of women’s soccer. They were forging a path and making history one game at a time. It wasn’t always glamourous, and it was never easy. Because they had been playing together for so long, these women formed bonds both on and off the field. Because they knew each other so well they were able to communicate and work together on the field in a way that other sports teams have never and will never be able to. At times, watching these women work together on the field was like watching a choreographed dance. They knew each other so well that they could just seamlessly work together.
Leading up to the 1999 Women’s World Cup, the US women’s team tried to build up some hype to generate interest and support for the tournament. One of the things they did was make some pretty hilarious commercials showing their dedication to their team and to each other. In my favorite of the commercials, a few of the players are at the dentist. Brandi Chastain comes out of the back and tells her teammates that she had two cavities and, therefore, needed to get two fillings. Starting with Mia Hamm, whose checkup had gone well and didn’t need any dental work, Brandi’s teammates all stand up and declare “I will have two fillings.” While an exaggeration on the extent of their friendship and teamwork, it’s also a testimony to this team.
So here’s to the twenty women who took over my life during the summer of 1999. The twenty women who I cheered for, followed, and admired. The twenty women who did more than just inspire me as an athlete, but inspired me as a human being. To the twenty women who proved that women’s soccer matters. That female athletes matter. And that they can kick ass.
I will have two fillings!
Women’s professional soccer was a new concept to me in 1999. I hadn’t known what soccer was when the women’s team won the inaugural Women’s World Cup in 1991. I was three years old.
I was only aware of men’s soccer when the USA Women brought home the gold in the 1996 Olympics. By then I was eight. It was the first time women’s soccer was played on that stage so I guess I can’t really be blamed for not knowing what was going on. The Women’s team was never given the spotlight before then.
Until the summer of 1999 when the Women’s World Cup was played across the US. The face of soccer was about to change. It was about to get a lot more feminine.
The former Giants Stadium sold out to 78,972 fans for the Opening Ceremony of the 1999 Women’s World Cup. It was the second largest audience ever in that stadium, coming in behind the Pope. He had God on his side and chairs on the field. On June 19, 1999, Giants Stadium was full of another type of devout follower – soccer fanatics. It was a sell-out crowd. The US Women were going to get the last laugh. They were told that they could never sell out the big stadiums for the 1999 Women’s World Cup. The fans of women’s soccer proved the critics wrong. There was tail-gating in the parking lot and the party atmosphere continued inside the stadium. It was more than just a soccer game; it was the kick-off of a summer event that would take the world by storm.
I was one of the 78,972 people that showed my support for the US Women’s team that day at Giants Stadium. I was just a kid in a Mia Hamm jersey. While it had only been a short time before that I had been introduced to the Women’s Soccer Team, I knew everything there was to know about the team, its history, and its players. I may have come in late, but I was no fair-weather fan. I was die-hard.
I sat in one of the end zones of Giants Stadium, behind a drunken British man that was decidedly pro-American and far too excited about doing the Wave. When the wave was two sections away, he would jump up and yell, “The Wave is coming! The Wave is coming!” The Wave would come through our section and he would enthusiastically throw his arms up in the air, dousing beer on those sitting around him – myself included. The Wave would be two sections away, and he would still be clapping and talking about how we could do it better the next time. The Wave circled the stadium, always coming back. It went on all day. And to think, that British man was my soccer instructor and the reason I was at Giants Stadium in the first place.
While my soccer instructor’s antics were hilarious, my concentration was solely on the game between the USA and Denmark. I didn’t even care that NSYNC did a short concert during the opening ceremony even though I was a huge NSYNC fan. I was waiting for the opening whistle, and when it came, the stadium erupted in cheers. The 1999 Women’s World Cup was officially underway. I was on the edge of my seat, cheering on my team when Mia Hamm, our star player, put us on the scoreboard in the 17th minute. The fans cheered and then breathed a small sigh of relief. We were ahead. We needed to stay there. Finally, in the 72nd minute, Julie Foudy gave us an insurance goal. Kristine Lilly brought home the victory in the 88th minute, putting the USA ahead 3 – 0. The US Women won the first game of the World Cup and proved that Women’s Soccer was a force to be reckoned with. There was still a long way to go.
I will never forget what it was like sitting in that stadium packed full of soccer fans. It was my second time seeing the women’s team play – the first time I saw them was two months earlier at Hersheypark Stadium. The atmosphere was decidedly different. Hersheypark Stadium could fit inside the old Giants Stadium. The crowd was much smaller in Hershey, and a lot less enthusiastic. Going from a tiny stadium to a massive one was shocking. I’d never been in such a huge crowd before. Or encountered a crowd that was so passionate and lively. I will never forget the party atmosphere, or the excitement and tension that gripped me until the final whistle blew. It might not mean much to other people, but sitting in that stadium for the opening game was one of the most exciting moments of my young life. I felt like I was part of something bigger than me. I felt like I was part of the team.
On June 24th the USA took on Nigeria in their second game of the group phase. Since Nigeria was not considered to be much of a threat, I went to see “Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me.” Looking back, I am ashamed of myself for not staying home and supporting my team. But I was still a kid, and the impact of the 1999 Women’s World Cup had not fully settled in my young mind yet. I didn’t know that it was only the fans that cared about the event – that big name sponsors, the media, The United States Soccer Federation, and FIFA (the world’s soccer organization) had no faith in the World Cup being a success and were showing little to no support for it. It wasn’t until after the World Cup was over that I would realize the importance of my support.
No one viewed Nigeria as a threat to the United States’ dominance until Nigeria scored in the first minute of the game. Across the country, US fans were shocked. I was sitting in a movie theater, but I was shocked when I heard about it later that night. It didn’t matter that I knew the outcome of the game when I found out about Nigeria’s lone goal. If they could score in the first minute, the US had to step up their game against fiercer opponents. The US team that had seemed so invincible possibly had a chink in the armor. The fans didn’t doubt the US team for long. The US came back and won the game 7 – 1. Three days later, the US played the final game in the group stage against North Korea. The US was guaranteed to advance to the quarter-finals, win, loss, or tie. They won 3 – 0.
Two days before the quarter-finals in Washington D.C., I found out that I was going to the game. I remember dancing around the backyard in excitement. I was just happy to be going to another game. I didn’t know that I would be witnessing history. We tailgated in the Jack Kent Cooke Stadium (now FedExField) parking lot. My friends and I made a sign that said “USA Kicks Grass.” We crossed out the “Gr” in heavy black marker. We were still at the precious age where writing “USA Kicks Ass” was still seen as a bad thing to do. But we knew what we meant. The US Women did kick ass. The world was beginning to see that. My friends and I also used spray on hair dye, and painted our faces red and blue. It was a decision I would come to regret as sweat mixed with the paint and ran down my face and on to my Mia Hamm jersey. It was annoying and uncomfortable, but I had more important things on my mind.
The US was playing Germany and things were not going well. In the 6th minute, communications in the back line fell apart and Brandi Chastain accidently scored an own-goal. A collective groan rose above the stadium into the night sky. This was the second time we had fallen behind during the tournament, but Germany was a fiercer opponent than Nigeria had been. Confidence returned in the 16th minute when Tiffeny Milbrett tied the game. The fans went wild. We were back in business. Elation only lasted until the final minute before halftime when Germany once again went ahead on the scoreboard. The fans looked at each other wildly at halftime. We had supported our team and cheered them till this point. They would do their job on the field during the second half, and we would do ours in the stands. In the 46th minute, fresh out of the locker room, Brandi found redemption as she tied up the game. And in the 66th minute, Joy Fawcett took the team to the semi-finals when she scored a header off of Shannon McMillan’s corner kick. The fans went wild. Tears mixed with the sweat that was running down my face, mixing with the paint, and discoloring my Mia Hamm jersey. I try not to think about what might have happened had the US Women lost that night. It’s a thought best saved for nightmares.
On the 4th of July, the US Women celebrated their Independence by defeating Brazil 2 – 0 in the semi-finals to advance to the Championship game against China. The team and the fans had reason to worry. The US had beat China in the gold medal match in the 1996 Olympics, so they could be beaten. But the US had lost to China in 2 out of 3 international friendlies that spring. If the team was worried, the fans did not know it. Had we known they were worried, we would have been worried as well. Instead, we remained confident. The US had chinks in the armor, but we were still invincible.
It was Saturday July 10, 1999. The US Women’s Soccer Team was about to make history. It was the most important soccer game of my life and I wasn’t at the stadium in California. I was watching it from my couch in Pennsylvania, gripping the edge of the recliner until my knuckles turned white and my fingers went numb. My legs fell asleep, but I barely noticed. My blood pressure was through the roof. My heart was beating wildly. I was at a stress level that no 11 year old should ever encounter. I had more important things on my mind than my personal comfort. There was nothing but me, the TV, the game, and my stress. I was the 12th woman – along with a lot of other 12th women and men. It was my team. As I wrote in my journal later, “Not much happened in the 1st half. A few injuries, some shots on goal, and some nice saves.” It was the same for the second half – save one thing. In the waning minutes of the 2nd half, the team’s enforcer, Michelle Akers, went down with a concussion. It was a blow to the team and to the fans. The team had to regroup and the fans had to give into the worry that had been building in our hearts since the starting whistle. With the game about to go into overtime, the team needed Michelle. We had lost her in the 1995 World Cup and the team fell apart and lost. As Michelle was helped off the field, everyone lifted their chins a little higher. Michelle had helped us get this far, we could and would carry on without her. We had to.
The championship game went to two 15-minute overtimes. It would be sudden victory if the US scored. It would be sudden defeat if China did. But if someone scored, it was over. It came close to sudden defeat when China had a shot that went past goalkeeper Briana Scurry and headed straight for goal. Whether it was fate or not, Kristine Lilly’s head was in the direct past of the ball. She headed the ball away from net as she stood on the goal line. A scream of horror switched to that of elation mid-scream. I jumped from the couch, rushing to embrace the TV and Kristine. She had saved the game by being at the right place at the right time. It could have ended right then, but it didn’t. Another thought best left for nightmares.
In the end, it came down to the most boring way to end a soccer game – penalty kicks. We won the toss and opted to kick second. Only the players knew who would be taking the kicks. The US players were walking around, smiling and high-fiving each other. They looked so calm. The fans sat back and watched as one by one, the players marched forward to the 18 yard box and their destiny. China kicked first and they scored. I booed. Our fearless captain, Carla Overbeck took our first shot and scored. I cheered. China scored their second. I booed. Joy Fawcett scored our second. I cheered. China took their third shot and Briana Scurry blocked it! I went wild. As a former goalkeeper, I knew the elation of blocking an opponent’s penalty kick. Briana had done the one thing that she needed to do. And she was a hero for it. Kristine Lilly scored our third goal. China scored again. Mia Hamm took the fourth shot for the US and scored. China scored their fifth and final shot. It was tied at 4 – 4, the US had one shot remaining.
Brandi Chastain stepped forward. She had missed a penalty kick against China in the spring, costing the US a victory. That knowledge was in the back of her mind as she stepped up to take her shot. The fans had forgotten. All they knew was that if and when Brandi scored, the US was champion. I watched Brandi approach the ball. She kicked and then she was running around in her black Nike sports bra. It was only on later replays that I actually saw the ball hit the back of the net. But there was no doubt that she had scored. The Championship game was over. The USA had won!
Life after the World Cup was about black sports bars and girl power. Not the girl power of the Spice Girls that revolved around wearing platform shoes and skanky outfits. This was real girl power. Woman power. This was about showing the men that not only were we as good. We were better.
A few months after the World Cup ended, I met Brandi Chastain while she was giving a speech at Hersheypark. She had been my hero long before she ever scored that penalty kick. I was no bandwagon Brandi fan. She could see that I was a real fan. Brandi signed a personalized photo for me at her speech. She told me to “Dream.” I took her advice. I’ve never stopped dreaming. My dreams may have taken me away from wanting to be the next Brandi Chastain. But my dreams took me to other places. What started out as a sporting event that the critics said wouldn’t amount to much took the world by storm. That squad of twenty women gave me the confidence to peruse my dreams and make them come true. Just because someone says I can’t do it, doesn’t mean I need to listen. I’ve got my own stadiums to sell out, penalty kicks to take, and championships to win. And there’s a black Nike sports bra in my drawer waiting for the victory celebration.
And, you know what, I will still have those two fillings!