Background image: The 90,195 fans who saw the USA-China Women's World Cup final in the Rose Bowl comprised the largest attendance ever at a women's sports event.
1999 Women's World Cup
No team I've ever covered played under as much pressure from high
expectations and lived up to them so well as the U.S. Women's National
Soccer Team in the 1999 Women’s World Cup.
It was prepared not only for the competition it faced over three hot
weeks in July but for the public attention that only its players expected.
The script would have seemed too contrived for Hollywood, which is
where the championship ended.
The first Women’s World Cup was played in 1991 in China in virtual
obscurity from the rest of the world. The United States won and
returned home to a welcome of a few friends and family. I was aware of
it only because nearly half the team’s players and its head coach were
Tar Heels and I was a North Carolina alumnus. The second World Cup
was played in 1995 in Norway to even smaller crowds than China, and
the Norwegians won.
So it was understandable that there was widespread skepticism of the
U.S. plans for hosting the ’99 tournament to play the games in some of
the largest and most famous football stadiums in this country: Soldier
Field in Chicago, Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., Stanford
Stadium in Palo Alto, Calif., and, for the championship game, the Rose
Bowl in Pasadena, Calif.
But to those who more or less closely followed women’s soccer, the idea
seemed less preposterous than a reasonably calculated risk. The United
States had a history of turning out for big international sports events,
even for sports that aren’t so popular here. The men’s World Cup played
in the United States in 1994 drew more than 3.5 million spectators to
many of the same stadiums to be used for the women’s event. No World
Cup before or since, including the 2014 World Cup in soccer-mad Brazil,
has drawn that many fans.
Likewise, more than 8.3 million fans attended the 1996 Atlanta Olympics,
more than any Olympics before or since. That included a turnout of
140,000 for the last two women’s soccer dates in the University of
Georgia’s football stadium in Athens, which I covered. Those games, the
largest women’s sports events to that date in history measured by
attendance, weren’t even televised.
More than a half-million tickets to the Women’s World Cup in the United
States had been sold before the first ball was kicked, mostly through the
numerous youth soccer leagues in the cities where the matches were
scheduled. That would have broken the event’s attendance record even
if no other ticket was purchased.
But the turnout of 79,000 for the tournament’s opening doubleheader
at Giants Stadium, which featured the nationally televised USA-Denmark
game, introduced the American public to a national team that was
unique in its ability to combine winning soccer (at the time, “winning
soccer” and “United States” was an oxymoron) and an approachability
that was exactly what Americans wanted to watch and admire at that
The convergence of circumstances that made the World Cup so
successful and the U.S. team so popular is as rare as a total eclipse of
the sun but far less predictable. I was fortunate to be able to cover one
other such occurrence – the Tonya Harding-Nancy Kerrigan figure
skating battle in 1994 that set TV ratings records.
All this contributed to making the Women’s World Cup enjoyable to
cover, but the key ingredient for me was watching the U.S. team
embrace the pressure and carry the whole tournament on its back from
East Rutherford to Pasadena.
Shouting to his team from the sideline, the coach of Mexico's women's national soccer team, Leo Cuellar, switched seamlessly from Spanish to English and back again, depending upon which player he was addressing.
Walking along the bench receiving high-fives from her teammates after being subbed out of a recent scrimmage against Stanford, forward Monica Gerardo said ''thanks'' about as often as ''gracias.''
Even if Spanish is the first language of only half of its 20 players, Mexico next month will become the first women's team from a Spanish-speaking country to play for the world championship of a sport in which Español is the most common tongue. …
As the only Bay Area sports writer who covered much college soccer, it became clear to me as I went through the rosters of the 12 teams that qualified for the Women’s World Cup that several of the names on Mexico's list were women I had covered at Santa Clara and Stanford. It didn’t take much work to figure out that half the Mexican team were U.S. college players that Mexico recognized as its citizens, usually because they had a parent or grandparent that had immigrated to the United States. This was basically a story that fell into my lap.
BEAVERTON, Ore. – Brandi Chastain was laid off. It was as simple as that.
It was as if she were a quarterback, and her team already had Joe Montana and Steve Young. She was a soccer forward on a team that included Michelle Akers, April Heinrichs, Carin Gabarra and Mia Hamm.
And there wasn't another national team she could play for. The U.S. women flew to Sweden for the 1995 World Cup and left Chastain, who had played two of the six games in the 1991 World Cup, home in San Jose to watch on TV. …
Along with many of the U.S. writers assigned to covering the upcoming World Cup, a few weeks before the tournament started, I went to Beaverton where Nike was hosting the United States and several other national teams at a training camp on its campus. For the writers it was like baseball spring training, a time to get to know the personalities we would be covering when they had the time to talk and weren’t under the pressure of the competition itself. Brandi Chastain, who was the most prominent Bay Area player for the Mercury News because she was a coach and former player at Santa Clara University, spoke with me for this story in the lobby of the Hilton Hotel in Portland, where the team was staying. There was no way to know it at the time, but much of the material I gathered became very useful two months later when she became the hero of the championship game.
There is a revolution going on.
You can hear it in the high pitch of the stadium roar. You can see it in the red-white-and-blue-painted fingernails.
The Women's World Cup, closing in on 600,000 attendance, is succeeding beyond its organizers' expectations in spreading soccer, the world's game, to women.
But the leaders of the movement – Mia, Julie, Brandi and the rest of the U.S. national team – are a most unlikely group of revolutionaries in a sport that has been one of history's great social equalizers, integrating the have-nots with the haves, the excluded with the privileged, the third world with the first.
They are the fruit of the 30-year blossoming of U.S. soccer that, despite its gender equality, has all the racial diversity of NASCAR and the economic stratification of golf. …
Although this story ran the morning of July 4, the day the United States played Brazil in a semifinal game at Stanford Stadium, the reporting on it began at the Beaverton, Ore., press event mentioned above. As the tournament favorite, it was easy to go through the bracket to see where the Americans would play if everything went as expected. Stanford, in the Merc’s backyard, would get the second most important game of the World Cup. We needed a big story in addition to the normal sports advance that said something about the societal significance of a game that would probably draw a record crowd for any women’s sports event. A lot of the string I gathered in Beaverton would have to be thrown away if the Americans lost somewhere along the way, but it was a reasonable gamble to take and, in the end, it paid off.
… Nobody on the U.S. national team means more to its success than Akers, 33. She's an original player from 1985, its first goal scorer, its most tenacious player, its most wounded warrior.
What has happened to her on soccer fields around the world is the full catalog of reasons parents have always feared to let their daughters play the game.
Akers' inspiring courage is why little girls do. …
I already knew that Michelle Akers was facing many physical challenges as an older player including chronic fatigue syndrome. But as I watched her play in the semifinal game at Stanford and learned afterward the way the team doctor had pumped her with an intravenous bag at halftime to keep her going, I decided she was the player I needed to focus on when the World Cup moved to Southern California for its finale. The last public practice before the championship game with China gave me the perfect scene for the story. Akers had to be removed late in the second half against China when she collapsed from exhaustion and was carried to the lockerroom for IV fluids.
PASADENA – Four times the Rose Bowl had been shaken to its foundations by the concussive roar of more than 90,000 fans when U.S. penalty kicks slammed into the back of the net.
Four times the ancient stadium had sighed with a single breath as China's penalty kicks had struck the same cords.
The United States and China had played to a scoreless draw through 120 minutes of sun-seared, heat-exhausted soccer Saturday in the Women's World Cup final. Then, through 4 1/2 rounds of penalty kicks, they were deadlocked 4-4.
It was Brandi Chastain's time to decide the championship of the world. ...
Today the Women’s World Cup is remembered for Brandi Chastain’s game-winning penalty kick against China and the picture of her ripping off her shirt in celebration. But in the Rose Bowl press box as it all happened, that was not the story most writers saw. The reason had to do with us being too close to the people we were covering and not in tune with the people we were covering it for. More than a few writers – including the Merc’s – didn’t want to write the Chastain-focused Page 1 story that their editors, who’d been watching on TV, were asking for. Part of that is because print reporters don't want their stories dictated by what television talks about – the print people watch the game and have insight, too, and don't need to parrot someone else's commentary. But it's also because for soccer purists and the writers who cater – or aspire to cater – to them, a penalty kick shootout is not the way a soccer tie should be broken. Soccer is a drawn out tactical game of land acquisition played on a huge field. For purists, the game should be won by a goal scored in the run of play no matter how long that takes. A shootout is TV friendly time-saving gimmick. On top of that, the significance of Chastain’s play during the 120 minutes of regulation wasn’t obvious because she was a defender and everyone watches the ball. The defensive play of the game was in the first overtime period when Kristine Lilly saved a line drive header from China’s Fan Yunjie with her own head at the goal line. I agreed with all that. But I volunteered to do the Chastain story anyway because what soccer ought to be wasn’t the point. We were covering the game as it had been played and decided. Chastain's goal had won the game under the rules in force and that had to be a front page story, especially in the Mercury News. She was our hometown girl. One thing I resolved after writing about sailing’s America’s Cup early in my time at the Merc was that learning the intricacies of any sport was important for my own understanding of what to write about – it helped enormously with my figure skating coverage, for example – but my job wasn’t to impress sailors or skating judges. Beyond that was the issue of Chastain’s shirtless celebration. We could see the TV coverage on press box monitors, but we had no idea how or if her celebration was being talked about or that the picture of her in her sports bra would become the iconic image of the game. The story we weren’t comprehending in the press box wasn’t that Chastain celebrated by taking off her shirt – which happens all the time in men’s soccer – it was that a woman who commits a soccer act looks different doing it. For millions of people, seeing that a goal-scorer wore a sports bra was a revelation, and logic doesn’t explain why that would be news. I plead guilty to not realizing in advance that this would be so, but at least I got the celebration in the next-to-last sentence of my story. Two years after this game I left the Merc to work for the Bay Area CyberRays in the women's professional soccer league spawned by the World Cup. China's goalkeeper at the Rose Bowl, Gao Hong, played for the New York Power in our league; Chastain was with the CyberRays. The CyberRays won the league's first season championship and defeated New York 3-2 in the league semifinals on another penalty kick from Chastain against Gao Hong.
… But Scurry didn't rely entirely on instinct. She pushed the rules requiring the keeper to remain on the goal line until the kick as far as allowable.
''You come out if you can for a little bit to cut down the angle,'' she said.
Was she moving too soon?
''A little bit. But it's only illegal if they call it. Just like tripping people in the penalty box isn't against the rules unless they call it.'' …
After volunteering to do the 1A story about Brandi Chastain’s game-winning penalty kick, I still had to write the main game story that would lead the sports section cover page. After my return to San Jose, I was criticized by my editor for this effort, and I agreed with him to a degree. After rushing to meet the earlier 1A deadline, I felt emotionally drained and felt this story wasn’t as crisp or as powerful as could have been. But I don’t feel all the criticism was warranted. As the quote from the story above reveals, I worked into the story what was the most underreported – and in many papers ignored – turning points in the game. That was U.S. goalkeeper Briana Scurry leaving the goal line too soon on the Chinese penalty kick that she blocked. Replays clearly showed she moved forward from the goal line before the ball was kicked, which is against the rules. Had it been called, Chastain’s penalty kick would not have been to win the game, it would have been to tie the shootout and keep the United States from losing. If Chastain made her kick under those circumstances, the shootout would have moved to another round of kicks for each team until, after completion of a round, one team held the lead. As we all know in sports, nothing is illegal unless the referee sees and calls it. One or both of those things did not occur as the play happened. In a game with no video review – even American football didn’t have video review at the time and soccer still doesn’t – the (non) ruling on the field stands. I didn’t get any quotes from the Chinese coach or his players after the game complaining about the non-call, but I got quite a few emails from people with Chinese names complaining that I didn’t make more of this play in my story. That’s also a fair criticism.
LOS ANGELES – Evelyn Williams, a 78-year-old San Jose grandmother who has never been a sports fan, watched her first televised soccer match Saturday when the U.S. national team won the Women's World Cup.
''I sat there transfixed from 10 to 3,'' she said Sunday. ''I couldn't move out of sight of the TV. I was overwhelmed by the concept of the whole thing, what these women stood for, the whole concept of seeing what came out of what they thought would be a small, small thing. Such unselfishness. Such teamwork.'' ...
Evelyn Williams was a friend from church from the days my son slept on my shoulder during Sunday sermons. I knew she had granddaughters in Seattle who played soccer, and she was the first person I thought to call when I began putting together my day-after story about what it all meant. What it all meant, of course, is that sports can affect people in ways nothing else in society can, even when women are the players.