The first-ever Women’s World Cup was held in China in 1991. In the final, American midfielder and tournament top scorer Michelle Akers scored two goals–her ninth and tenth of the tournament–to lead the United States to a 2-1 win over Norway. The team returned home victorious but to little fanfare. In 1995, the U.S. again had a strong showing, placing third behind Germany and champion Norway, but still few at home took notice.
The 1999 World Cup, though, was a much different story. The event was to be held in the United States, where soccer’s popularity was at an all-time high and growing, especially among young girls. The team was finally well-covered in the media and tickets were snapped up early by fans eager to see their new heroes perform. The team’s stars, newly recognizable to the public, included veteran midfielder Michelle Akers, international scoring champion Mia Hamm, midfielder Julie Foudy, midfielder/forward Kristine Lilly and defender Brandi Chastain.
Heading into the Cup, the U.S. and China, both deep and talented squads with lots of international experience, were widely recognized as the favorites. The Chinese were led by striker Sun Wen, considered one of the most dangerous scorers in the tournament, and keeper Gao Hong, who was known for her athleticism. When the two teams made the final, the stage was set for a historic match.
Thirty-three-year-old Michelle Akers, playing in her final World Cup for the United States, was the star of the game, controlling the midfield and funneling balls to her forwards to set up the attack. In 90 minutes of regulation, the Chinese managed only two shots on the U.S. goal. Akers who suffered from Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, collapsed after colliding with goalie Brianna Scurry and had to leave the game after the second half. The Chinese team was now rid of their foil, and the momentum swung their way during overtime. On a corner kick in the U.S. end, Chinese defender Fan Yunjie headed the ball toward the U.S. goal. Scurry couldn’t make the save, but just as the game seemed lost, defender Kristine Lilly, standing at the goal-line, headed the ball away from the cage. After a full 120 scoreless minutes, the teams entered a shootout, in which each would be given five penalty shots on goal.
With the score tied 2-2 in the shootout, U.S. goalie Brianna Scurry dove left to make a save on China’s Liu Ying, giving the U.S. a chance to win. With the score tied at 4-4, all eyes were on Brandi Chastain, the last American to shoot. Chastain avoided eye contact with Gao Hong so as not to let the intimidating Chinese goalkeeper psych her out. She boomed a kick into the upper-right corner of the net, then ran and ripped off her jersey in celebration. The picture of Chastain celebrating on her knees clad in her sports bra became the enduring image of the match.