It has been 20 years since the most iconic moment in the history of women’s soccer, the United States winning the 1999 World Cup.
“It was a powerful year, to be honest,” forward Kristine Lilly told Omnisport. “That ’99 team was special and I don’t think there was one reason why it was special. It was 20 unique individuals that had their own personalities and talent that came together as one team.
“You weren’t playing for yourself. You were playing for the team. And ultimately, that’s what created our success. But it was also during a time that soccer was growing and it really hadn’t hit the forefront yet. Then the World Cup comes and we sell out our games and we win and lots of people watch it and it completely changed our society’s views on women’s soccer.”
With the 2019 tournament set to start Friday in France, many of those on the current U.S. national team point to the athletes who electrified America 20 years ago as role models.
“The 99ers had a huge impact on me and growing my passion and wanting to play. Being good friends with a lot of them now, I still draw a lot of inspiration from them,” star forward Alex Morgan told reporters at the team’s World Cup media day.
Twenty years later, we take a look back at the tournament that forever changed the sport, as told through the eyes of a few key players from the 1999 U.S. national team.
Setting the scene
The tournament began June 19, 1999. It was only the third edition of the women’s World Cup, after the United States won the first tournament in 1991 and Norway was victorious four years later. The Americans made it out of the opening stage, leading Group A with nine points after winning all three games.
Then came the knockout round where the U.S. opened with a win over Germany in the quarterfinals (3-2) – and that’s the moment Lilly realized the Americans had a real shot at winning the whole thing.
“Obviously, our goal was to win the World Cup and I think we knew we could do it if we played well and played together as a team and everyone did their job,” Lilly said. “We played Germany and we scored a goal and then went down one goal and then tied it up. We ended up winning that game and I thought, ‘You know what, we are going to win this whole thing.'”
Then the U.S. defeated Brazil, 2-0, in the semifinals before facing China in the final.
“All the teams you play in the World Cup, you have to be respectful of the talent you’re playing against,” Lilly said. “We knew China was good and that they were one of the stronger teams in the ’90s and after playing them in the Olympics in ’96, we knew they would be strong.”
The final game
It was July 10, 1999. A record 90,185 fans packed the stands at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California, and 40 million more tuned in around the world to watch the United States take on China to determine the 1999 champion. At the time, the final marked the most-attended women’s sports event in history and brought celebrities from all across the nation to one place, including President Bill Clinton.
F-16s flew over. Jennifer Lopez sang. “It was nuts,” Lilly recalled.
When the U.S. team walked out of the tunnel, the enormity of the moment hit.
“You were looking into the crowd and there were all these people and you were just like, ‘Holy cow.’ … It was just amazing and to top it off it was hot, like 100 degrees,” Lilly said. “And then we actually had to start playing the game.”
Once the game began, the stadium fell silent and the Americans’ focus was on winning the World Cup.
“I remember being completely fascinated by the huge crowd at the game, but all I remember thinking once the ref handed me the ball was how amazingly quiet 90,000 people can be. In those few seconds, all I could hear was myself breathe,” defender Brandi Chastain told ESPN.
The actual match ended in a stalemate. Neither team scored through regulation and they remained scoreless even after extra time. There was one moment when it looked as if China was going to score off a header, but it was famously saved off the line by the 5-foot-4 Lilly to keep the Americans alive.
“It happened so fast,” Lilly said. “There are so many moments like that throughout the whole tournament that adds to our success. That was just one moment that helped us stay alive.”
Funny thing, Lilly admits 20 years later: That was the weakest part of her game.
“The fact that I actually used my head to save the goal was pretty incredible for me,” she said.
Some 300 games she played and, by her count, she saved off the line like that maybe two times. Maybe.
So when she made that save … at that point … in that game? “I was just going, ‘Did that really happen?’ Like I couldn’t believe it. I was just fortunate to be doing my job at the time,” she said.
With the match scoreless after extra time, it all would come down to penalty kicks to decide the champion – a moment that would test the U.S. team’s resolve.
And the consensus among the Americans, Lilly said, was: We got this. We’re winning this game.
“That was our mentality going in and we found out who the PK kickers were going to be and then we were focusing on our shot and our kick,” Lilly told Omnisport.
Goalkeeper Briana Scurry made a huge save on Liu Ying, giving the U.S. momentum right before Lilly stepped to the line. She remembers the crowd going crazy. And then the strangest thing happened: The fans fell silent again as she prepared to take her kick.
“I remember I was third, watching Carla (Overbeck) and Joy (Fawcett) and being nervous for them and then getting to my turn,” Lilly said. “I was like, ‘All right, let’s do this.’ And when I scored, I was so happy.”
The game came down to Mia Hamm and Chastain. Hamm converted, then it was Chastain’s turn to step to the line.
Chastain kicked, watching as the ball left of her foot and landed in the back of the net in what she recalled as complete slow-motion.
I remember watching the ball, seeing it spin with the logo and stitching – I mean, it was that slow, almost on pause,” Chastain said. “And then it hit the net and the crowd erupted and it’s back to real time and the team is running over piling on.”
“When I saw her take the kick to the left with her foot, I knew it was going in and that the goalie wasn’t getting it,” Lilly said. “We were already starting the celebration, and it was such a moment of complete jubilation. We were so happy and pleased with so many emotions.”
Then came the celebration heard ’round the world. A celebration – witnessed by nearly 100,000 in the Rose Bowl and tens of millions more around the globe – that will go down in the history of the sport.
And one that redefined women’s sports across the United States.
Chastain ripped off her shirt, swung it around in the air and then fell to her knees in exultation. With her fists clinched and her biceps bulging, Chastain closed her eyes and screamed out of pure happiness. Her reaction was powerful. And it was one that could be felt by everyone who had just witnessed what the U.S. national team set out to accomplish.
Her teammates ran from midfield to join her. But in that singular show of strength and triumph and sheer joy, it was the act of celebrating in her sports bra that took the world by storm.
“I whipped off that shirt and I kind of whipped it around in the air over my head and dropped to my knees as a ‘Yes!’ moment that we had done what we set out to do,” Chastain said (per the BBC).
“I had no idea that would be my reaction – it was truly genuine and it was insane and it was a relief and it was joy and it was gratitude all wrapped into one.”
It was common for male players to celebrate in that way, but it was a first for a woman.
“I mean, it was just what happened, exactly how it happened, as I was feeling it. It was spontaneous emotion. At a moment like that, your emotions completely take over and it’s just raw reaction and feeling and sensation,” Chastain told ESPN. “You don’t think, you just are. You’re right there in it and those feelings – when they’re that raw – are never wrong. That’s the honest truth of the emotion of the moment.
“I hope that young girls that see that picture, see a little bit of themselves. They see strength and power. They see a lifelong journey. They see the willingness and the confidence that it takes to be seen.”
While the world would react to Chastain’s celebration, Lilly – lost in the moment, too – was oblivious.
“I wasn’t even paying attention that she took off her shirt after she scored,” Lilly told Omnisport. “We were all running toward her and coming over to congratulate her. It was complete euphoria. You heard the crowd and we were basking in the excitement of everything. We were just so proud that we had accomplished our goal and also ended up having, you know, sellout crowds.”
Chastain’s celebration was featured on the covers of Sports Illustrated, Newsweek and Time, among others, as she became, quite literally, an overnight celebrity.
“Women’s soccer,” Chastain said, “was not anonymous anymore.”
How the sport changed
The conversation around women’s soccer had changed – forever. People were talking about it, and fans were affected by the ’99 team that became an inspiration.
“We were all really enthusiastic, but I’m not so sure we knew that it was going to cause this revolution,” Chastain told CBS.
As Lilly reflected on the impact she made as part of that national team, she found it “pretty incredible” what they were able to accomplish and hopes to continue being an inspiration for future generations.
“Going through it, I don’t think we really understood what we were doing to the sport until after we won,” Lilly said. “We impacted people’s lives. To realize we were a part of that was like, ‘Wow, that’s pretty special.’ And to know we were part of changing people’s lives – it was awesome.”
Two decades later, it’s safe to say the ’99 team remains an inspiration. The sport has evolved. And the talent and depth of the national team increases every year, in large part thanks to that group of athletes 20 years ago.
“They’re great people that really shaped the history of this program and I’ll be forever grateful for that,” Morgan said before embarking on another journey in the World Cup.
The Americans are coming off a 2015 World Cup title, striving to go back-to-back and extend their record from three to four championships. History-makers, if you will.
“Now,” Morgan added, “it’s our turn to make our mark.”
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