I remember exactly where I was when Brandy Chastain nailed the final penalty kick to win the World Cup for the United States in 1999, which is weird, because I’d never played soccer and wasn’t much of a soccer fan. As a regular reader of both Sports Illustrated and Sports Illustrated For Kids, I was familiar with the big stars of both the men’s and women’s teams, people like Mia Hamm and Colbi Jones, but until that day, I don’t think I’d ever watched a soccer match — and I wasn’t really watching that day either. It just happened to be on.
Soccer at the time was a fledgling sport in the United States — Major League Soccer launched a few years earlier, the men had flamed out of the 1998 World Cup, the 1999 Cup, hosted by the U.S., was just the third women’s version ever held.
The third film in ESPN’s Nine for IX documentary series, created to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Title IX, is 99ers, which revisits the 1999 World Cup when 20 American women launched soccer into the American sporting mainstream for the first time and in a way that hasn’t been duplicated since. That World Cup, as the film details, began with lofty goals. It wasn’t just a tournament for women — it was a tournament designed specifically as a monumental moment for women’s sports.
“We came up with a mission statement, and that mission statement is to stage a breakthrough event for women’s sports and to inspire the next generation of female athletes,” Marla Messing, president of the 1999 World Cup, said during a press conference before it began. The 1999 World Cup was going to prove that women’s sports could compete — and sometimes overtake — the games men played.
In the years before, women’s soccer had struggled for recognition despite the American team’s successes. The U.S. won the initial Women’s World Cup in 1991, only to be greeted at the airport by three fans. “And one of them was our bus driver,” Julie Foudy, who played on both the 1991 and 1999 teams and narrated 99ers, said in the film. By 1999, that had changed. The U.S. played its opening match at the Meadowlands in front of 79,000 fans, the largest crowd to ever witness a women’s sporting event in American history. The record stood for less than a month, eclipsed by the more than 90,000 that attended the final at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena. The team was greeted by photographers and media swarms and, in one instance, a marching band and a welcoming party. More fans showed up to watch them practice than they were used to seeing at games. Nearly 3 million watched the semifinal victory over Brazil, making it the largest television audience for a soccer match, men’s or women’s, in American history.
99ers chronicles that journey by re-uniting Foudy, Chastain, and Hamm with other teammates — Briana Scurry, Joy Fawcett, Carla Overbeck, Michelle Akers, and Tiffeny Milbrett — at the Rose Bowl, where they won the World Cup 14 years earlier. Through their conversations and home video footage from Foudy’s omnipresent camera that followed the team’s journey as it unfolded, it pieces together an inside story of how that team bonded and thrived as they took their sport, and women’s sports in general, to the big stage.
The most telling moment of the film came when Chastain, Foudy, and Hamm met with three of the players who inherited the women’s soccer throne. In a conversation with Abby Wambach, Christy Rampone, and Alex Morgan, the national team’s biggest stars today, the veterans found out how much impact they had. “Without your inspiration, I’m doing something totally different right now,” Wambach, who this summer broke Hamm’s all-time American goal scoring record, said. “I was the biggest tomboy, so I was like, ‘I want to do that,'” Morgan, who many expect to score more goals than both Hamm and Wambach before her career is over, added.
Near the end, Foudy asks her former teammates a powerful question. “Someone once asked me, ‘Were you pioneers, or was ’99 an anomaly?’ and that question actually has haunted me for a long time, because we so badly didn’t want to be the only ones. … You think that happened?”
There may never be another 1999 World Cup team, never another moment as special as Chastain’s final penalty kick. But ask this: without the 1999 team, does the 2011 team that featured Wambach, Rampone, and Morgan make its own magical run to the World Cup final, creating its own inspiring moments along the way? Does it go on to redeem its World Cup loss by winning a gold medal at the 2012 London Olympics? Does it mark the American women as just as big a piece in soccer’s continued growth in popularity stateside as the American men? And is a generation of young girls that will now say “I want to do that” every time Morgan or Wambach scores instead looking to someone else?
The issues that face women’s soccer today mirror those that face women’s sports in general: around the world, opportunities are fewer and money is harder to come by. The success of the U.S. Women’s National Team hasn’t yet spawned a successful women’s professional league, though the newly-founded National Women’s Soccer League may have more institutional support than leagues that preceded it. Even in soccer-mad countries like Brazil, women’s teams struggle for full and equal funding. Women in other countries are still fighting for the right to play it at all.
The United States hasn’t won a World Cup since that 1999 victory, but the mission of that tournament — a breakthrough for women’s sports — was a success. It put the excellence of women’s soccer and women’s sports in front of people like me. More importantly, it put the possibilities of women’s sports in front of people like Wambach and Morgan and everyone who will continue to both demonstrate that excellence and fight for equality. Far from an anomaly, the ’99ers were an important step forward for both women’s sports and sports as a whole.