Why you should care
Perhaps the most iconic moment in women’s sporting history almost didn’t happen.
Welcome to The Thread, OZY’s chart-topping weekly podcast. In Season 5, we explore the history-making 1999 U.S. women’s soccer team and all of the unheralded athletes, policymakers and activists that made their journey possible. Subscribe now to follow The Thread on OZY.com, Spotify, Apple, Himalaya or wherever you prefer to stream your audio.
July 10, 1999. A crowd of 90,185 at the Rose Bowl. A nation holding its breath, with nearly 18 million households watching on TV. Magazine covers. And finally, the indelible image of an overjoyed Brandi Chastain in her sports bra.
Nine days earlier, all of this was in doubt. Facing Germany in the World Cup quarterfinals, the U.S. women’s soccer team trailed 2-1 at halftime, and Chastain had scored — in the wrong goal.
The stakes couldn’t have been higher, with women’s sports fighting for acceptance and soccer itself still the sports punditocracy’s punching bag.
“Had the U.S. team departed the tournament at that point, we would have been fine financially, and it would have still been a success, but it may not have been the seminal event it became for girls and women, women’s sports and soccer,” says Marla Messing, the president and CEO of the 1999 World Cup organizing committee.
There was never a sense of panic or stress or anything like that.
Shannon MacMillan, 1999 Team USA midfielder
Team USA had won the first Women’s World Cup in obscurity eight years prior. In 1996, a Tiffeny Milbrett goal clinched the first Olympic women’s soccer gold medal before more than 75,000 fans in Athens, Georgia, but NBC showed little of the game to the national viewing audience.
This World Cup was the golden opportunity. Teams don’t usually get a chance to play for global glory at home, particularly when the sport is on the threshold of mainstream acceptance.
“If we had lost in the quarters, we possibly would have never gotten close, even now,” says Wendy Gebauer Palladino, who played in the 1991 World Cup and did color commentary on the ESPN 1999 quarterfinal broadcast.
Playing in the Washington suburbs, with then-President Bill Clinton watching from box seats, disaster struck early. Chastain, under pressure from German attackers, played the ball back to where she thought goalkeeper Briana Scurry was. Scurry wasn’t there. The ball trickled into the goal for a 1-0 German lead.
The Americans rallied. Mia Hamm, playing through nagging injuries, unraveled the German defense. A Michelle Akers shot was deflected and fell to the feet of the supreme goal poacher, Milbrett: 1-1.
The U.S. defense, though, was still unsettled, relying on Scurry’s alert play to avert trouble. Then just before halftime, German midfielder Bettina Wiegmann ripped a long-range shot into the upper corner of the goal: 2-1, Germany.
In the U.S. locker room, somehow, the team was unshaken. “There was never a sense of panic or stress or anything like that,” says Shannon MacMillan, who had a track record of rising to the occasion in big games.
Soon after halftime, the U.S. earned a corner kick. The ball went into a crowd and caromed back next to, of all people, Chastain. She whipped her right foot around to strike the bouncing ball: 2-2. “So many coaches taught me to do things the right way under pressure,” Chastain told Sports Illustrated in 2014. “So that was a good moment for me as a player, to be able to say that in a big game, at an important time, the technique came through. As a player, that’s cool.”
The U.S. piled on the pressure, but with 25 minutes left in regulation play, the game was still 2-2. Enter MacMillan, the super-sub. “As I was running in, I knew it was a corner kick, and that was a potential weakness for them,” MacMillan says. Her first touch on the ball was that corner kick, which she drove hard to the near post. In an instant, Joy Fawcett rose and slammed a header into the net: 3-2, U.S.
The rest is history. Scurry slammed the door on a talented Brazilian team in the semifinals. The final ended with that other Chastain goal.
Germany went on to win the next two World Cups. The U.S. won three straight Olympic golds from 2004 to 2012, reclaimed the World Cup in 2015 and has never been ranked below second internationally since FIFA started ranking women in 2003.
But the quarterfinals can often pose a stumbling block. Germany lost in the World Cup quarterfinals at home in 2011. After close calls in 2008 and 2011, the U.S. streak of taking a medal in every major tournament (World Cup and Olympics) finally came to an end in 2016 with a quarterfinal loss to Sweden.
This year’s World Cup may be no different. If early results go as expected, the U.S. women will face a dangerous French team. In France.
But the U.S. team has built on the 1999 breakthrough. And that World Cup irrevocably changed perceptions. “We made a statement,” MacMillan says. “We said it’s OK to be a strong, confident female.”