On a warm, sunny spring day in May 1999, before nearly 15,000 enthralled fans, the United States women’s soccer team shellacked Japan 7-0 in a World Cup tune-up game in Atlanta. Two months later, the U.S. won the Cup in a thrilling penalty kick shootout against China at the Rose Bowl in California. It’s a testament to the growth of women’s soccer globally that this Sunday’s World Cup final pits the U.S. against a Japanese squad now among the world’s best.
Those dozen years ago, the crowd at DeKalb Memorial Stadium included a self-professed soccer dad, along with his 8-year-old daughter and 6-year-old son, both in the early stages of their soccer careers. Thousands of pony-tailed girls screaming “Mia, Mia” at the top of their young lungs, many wearing Mia Hamm jerseys with #9 on the back, were rewarded with a goal by their heroine. My daughter eventually became a goalkeeper, but back then her “hair hero” was Michelle Akers, the midfielder with whom she shared a seemingly uncontrollable head of curls.
Among the starters for Japan that day was 21-year-old midfielder Homare Sawa, who today is 33-years-old and captain of the 2011 Japanese team. A U.S. substitute in the 46th minute was defender Christie Pearce, now Christie Rampone, captain of the U.S. team and the only holdover from 1999. Surely Rampone appreciates the history.
“It's a delicate balance: Today's U.S. players want to be respectful toward their legendary forebears, the sports pioneers who toiled in obscurity for years before their breakout moment in '99. But the Class of 2011 also wants to write a new chapter in the history of this team. Right now the U.S. women are like the younger sister of a high school genius/homecoming queen, a younger sister who has to listen to stories about her older sibling's greatness all the time,” assessed Grant Wahl in Sports Illustrated.
The ’99ers, as they’re known, inspired a boom among their “younger sisters.” Akers, Hamm, Brandi Chastain, Julie Foudy and Kristine Lilly were rock stars to girls who now had their own sports idols. Soccer in America may not be a “girls sport” but it emphatically is a sport for girls. Today some 3.1 million American youngsters are registered with youth soccer teams, twice as many as two decades ago. Approximately half are female. By one estimate, more than 337,000 girls play on 10,500 high school teams nationwide, while some 700 colleges and universities field teams.
The success of Title IX, a federal law passed in 1972 that opened up athletic opportunities at the college level, was evident in the 1999 roster and remains so today; for example, Abby Wambach played at the University of Florida, Hope Solo at the University of Washington and Rampone at Monmouth University. Several of the top players from other nations at the World Cup played at U.S. colleges, as well.
I remember well that 1999 World Cup championship game. Our family was attending a congregation retreat in North Carolina, with no prospect of watching the game. My daughter was especially eager to see the game. Somehow, a member in our group met a man who lived down the mountain, who probably did not expect that his invitation to view the game at his home would be accepted by more than a dozen men, women and children. We brought snacks and crowded in front of the television. And we exulted when Chastain fired in the winner in that penalty kick shootout.
After winning the 1999 World Cup, the U.S. stars formed the nucleus of the short-lived WUSA professional league. My daughter was a devoted fan of the Atlanta Beat, whose stars included that same Homare Sawa of Japan. Now a university junior approaching her 21st birthday, she retains her vivid memories of that 1999 final and will watch this Sunday from her off-campus apartment.