The story of the FIFA Women’s World Cup (Part 1: the 1990s)

FIFA Women's World Cup USA China Norway

The early 1990s was a time of lasting revolution in the world of football. 1992 was a particularly landmark year, with the Premier League and UEFA Champions League having their first carnations that autumn. Also, with the fall of Communism, the game in Eastern Europe changed irrevocably, albeit not for the better for one-time giants like Dynamo Kiev and Spartak Moscow. In 1991, there was another significant breakthrough when the first official FIFA Women’s World Cup was staged in China.

1991: USA win the gold

There had been a series of continental and invitational tournaments during the 1970s and 80s, but it took until the early 1990s for a FIFA-ratified global competition to come to fruition. The first instalment of the tournament had the unwieldy official title of the ‘1st FIFA World Championship for Women’s Football for the M&M’s Cup’, the confectionery part owing to Mars’ sponsorship. It was little wonder that fans and media alike went with Women’s World Cup.

The tournament began tentatively as a 12-team competition in China, although all six confederations were represented. Matches were 80 minutes long, although that was upgraded to the standard 90 for all subsequent editions. Female officials were included at a FIFA tournament for the first time, with Brazil’s Cláudia Vasconcelos becoming the first woman to take charge of a competitive FIFA football match.

The opening match ended in a 4-0 win for China against Norway, with Ma Li having the honour of scoring the first ever goal at the Women’s World Cup. The hosts comfortably progressed to the quarter-finals, with Norway also recovering to progress. USA and Germany both won all their group games, with New Zealand, Japan and Nigeria failing to get a point. Indeed, the Japanese suffered an 8-0 hammering by Sweden. Brazil were the other team to exit at the group stage, as the weakest of the third-place finishers. A 5-0 thumping by the U.S. proved fatal to their hopes.

The Americans were fast emerging as favourites and enjoyed a 7-0 romp over Chinese Taipei in the quarter-finals. Michelle Akers-Stahl, the tournament’s top scorer, helped herself to five goals in that one game alone. A further five goals arrived for USA in the semi-finals, with Carin Jennings netting a hat-trick against Germany. The other last four clash was an all-Scandinavian affair, with Norway beating Sweden 4-1.

USA had largely romped through the tournament but were given a real contest by Norway in the final in Guangzhou, which had a fantastic attendance of 63,000. Akers-Stahl was the hero of the day, scoring both of the Americans’ goals in a 2-1 victory, with the winner coming just two minutes from full-time.

The tournament was perceived as a real success, with strong attendances and a standard of football that was far better than most had expected. The feelgood factor from the inaugural Women’s World Cup was central to women’s football being added to the list of events for the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta.

1995: Norway lead the way

Bulgaria had originally been selected to host the second Women’s World Cup, but it was later stripped of its hosting rights and Sweden stepped into the breach. FIFA experimented with the option of teams having a two-minute timeout in each half and, thankfully, any references to M&Ms were removed from the official title.

The hosts were beaten 1-0 by Brazil in the opening match but the South Americans would again be knocked out in the group stage after a 6-1 thrashing by Germany in their last group match. Norway made waves with 17 goals in three group games, including 8-0 and 7-0 wins over Nigeria and Canada respectively. England progressed to the quarter-finals in their tournament debut, winning two group matches either side of a 2-0 defeat to Norway.

The outstanding tie of the group stage, though, was the 3-3 thriller between USA and China. The holders were 3-1 ahead going into the final 15 minutes before two quickfire goals for the Asians drew them level. In the American’s second match, star striker Mia Hamm was forced to don the goalkeeping gloves after Brianna Scurry’s late red card. The stand-in netminder had time enough to pull off two fine saves in a 2-0 win over a Denmark side who impressed on their debut appearance.

England’s tournament ended in the last eight after a 3-0 defeat to Germany, while the home nation bowed out after a penalty shoot-out defeat by China. USA cruised past Japan and looked good for a second title but were stunned in the semi-finals by Norway. There would be an all-European final after Germany struck late to beat China in the other semi.

The Germans were narrow favourites for the final at Stockholm’s Rasuna Stadium, with just over 17,000 in attendance. Two goals in three minutes shortly before half-time settled the contest, although both were scored by Norway. Hege Riise and Marianne Pettersen scored the goals that clinched victory for the Norwegians, who had maintained their imperious form from the group stage right throughout the tournament.

1999: The true breakthrough

The first two Women’s World Cups had been very progressive, but the 1999 event in USA took women’s football to an unprecedented level of popularity and recognition and is widely cited as the defining moment in the female game. Even before the finals, there were clear signs of the tournament’s growth, literally and figuratively. The number of finalists was increased to 16, while all officials were female and most of the venues were nominally gridiron stadia that were used because football-specific grounds would not take the crowds that were expected (and duly turned up). Also, many of the corporate sponsors for the men’s World Cup now got on board, while every match was televised live in the U.S. and 70 countries showed some of the tournament.

As expected, the hosts stormed through the group stage with three wins and 13 goals, seven of which came against a Nigeria team that also progressed to the last eight, the first African team to make it that far. Brazil and Germany came through an intense group that also featured Italy and Mexico, with the former two serving up a riveting 3-3 draw which swung with each goal scored. A last-gasp Brazilian equaliser meant they topped the group and avoided USA in the quarter-finals.

Norway and Russia had no trouble in negotiating Group C, with the holders demolishing Canada 7-1. Group D was also lopsided, with China and Sweden proving far too good for Australia and Ghana. Indeed, the African debutants were subjected to a seven-goal slaying by an impressive Chinese outfit.

The quarter-finals threw up some cracking games, not least the unexpectedly close-run battle between Brazil and Nigeria. The teams shared six goals in normal time and the honour of the first Golden Goal in the Women’s World Cup fell to Brazil’s Sissi, who ended as the finals’ joint top scorer. USA and Germany also played out a frenetic tussle which the hosts edged 3-2. Norway kept their title defence going with a 3-1 win over neighbours Sweden while China saw off Russia.

The semi-finals were played on USA’s Independence Day and the hosts had further reason to celebrate after beating Brazil 2-0, veteran Akers getting the insurance goal. In the other game, Norway’s grip on the title ended mercilessly, with China inflicting a 5-0 defeat.

More than 90,000 fans crammed into Pasadena’s Rose Bowl for the final, the highest ever attendance for a women’s football match. A titanic contest was envisaged but, disappointingly, 120 minutes of football failed to yield a goal. As in the men’s World Cup five years previously, the final would be settled on penalties in Pasadena after a goalless draw.

At 4-4 in the shoot-out, USA’s Brandi Chastain had the kick to win it. She held her nerve and duly delivered an iconic celebration, ripping off her shirt gleefully to reveal a sports bra underneath. It became the enduring moment of an excellent tournament, one which brought women’s football to a level of publicity and interest that would have seemed most unattainable at the beginning of the decade.