Shades of 1999

On how the 1999 Women’s World Cup casts its shadow forward in time to 2011.

Mia Hamm, Julie Foudy, Christine Lilly. The names hearken to myth more than reality at this point. Like Jordan, Pippen, Barry Sanders, Ripken, and the other pillars that support my fading memory of the 1990s, the individuals which comprised the U.S. women’s team that conquered the world of women’s athletics in 1999 are limned in my mind like few others. I tend to classify and sort my memory according to the major sporting events I absorbed throughout my life. Yes, we moved from west Alabama to east Alabama in 1992 or thereabouts because the Braves lost the World Series to the Blue Jays that year, and we were definitely at our new home for that. Yes, I went to Paris in the summer of 2007, because that was the year LeBron dropped 25 points in a row to beat the Pistons and I couldn’t watch because the game was at 1:00a France time. In 1999, I remember that my grandparents lived in Montgomery, Alabama, and that after being dropped off by my parents for the weekend, I sat on the footboard of a twin bed from the Philippines and watched what should have been a rather drab 0-0 game that had me on pins and needles the entire time. Briana Scurry, Brandi Chastain. Thinking about that afternoon, the names burn steadily in my mind’s eye like hot coals.

Most of you know the basic details of the match already; instead, I’ll point out some of the more vivid images. First, the crowd in the Rose Bowl was massive, all wearing white, and very, very loud. If I were taking PK’s for the Chinese national team, I’d be near-petrified. And yet, none of them seemed that way. Each of them jogged up, calmly took the penalty, and jogged back, with almost no celebration–including Liu Ying, who missed the shot. I love how (understandably) pumped up Briana Scurry is right after she saves the third penalty attempt. One of the announcers had just said that women keepers were normally not athletic enough to save penalties, and Scurry proved her wrong on the spot. The take-home moment for most people involves Brandi Chastain; Scurry’s celebration after making the save has to be in that conversation. I felt chills watching Mia Hamm take her penalty. There she was, in her prime, the most celebrated American female athlete of all time, larger than life, calmly slotting home. Re-watching this clip, it’s easy to see why she drew constant comparisons to Jordan throughout her career. And then, of course, there’s THAT moment. The one everyone, even the least ardent sports fans, remember. ABC set it up perfectly with a great camera angle from behind the goal. You can dimly see the two squads standing in the distant, one expectant, ready; the other desperately hopeful. The camera continues to pan out as if trying to contain the whole stadium in the instant as you see Chastain run up and you hear the thud of the ball in the back of the net. The tension is broken sharply and the squad runs toward her as she drops to the ground, her shirt stripped away so you can see every muscle flexed, screaming.

Why is it that the 1999 final holds such importance in my mind and the minds of many other casual American sport consumers? It wasn’t the first time the US had been crowned World Champions, having won the inaugural tournament, hosted in China. Was there a political subtext present in the enthusiasm? Surely the victory in China on the heels of the Cold War would be more important than a similar match on US soil eight years later. Perhaps it’s the “not in our house” theory? For example, the men’s World Cup in 1994 created a massive amount of patriotism, presumably because no one comes into ‘Merica and hands us a butt whooping (except, perhaps, Brazil and, erm, Spain). Similar feelings might have reigned in ‘99. There had to be elements of the ‘not in our house’ theory in why I chose to watch that year (not being a huge soccer fan)[1]; but I think the reason USA/China was so captivating had more to do with our love of succeeding. Essentially, we rose up as a nation and supported that team because they (the individual players and the team as a whole) attained a level of excellence that was impossible not to get behind. We as a country love (absolutely love) to be great at things. We loudly and voraciously support those instances of our greatness, and (as sad as it is) find a tougher time recognizing those instances where we are not so great. Oodles of Americans celebrated Rulon Gardner’s triumph at the 2000 Olympic games in Greco-Roman wrestling, despite the fact that most of those people hadn’t followed coverage at all until the gold medal match. Another example would be the 1980 “Miracle on Ice,” where, again, a famous sports moment was created from a sport which is (still) heavily marginalized in our country[2]. We knew Mia Hamm and the others were amazing, and we wanted to see their guns on display.

This is not to suggest that said phenomenon is unique to the United States. What country wouldn’t get behind a bunch of their compatriots striving for brilliance? Instead, what I am pointing out is that our voice, collectively, can be incredibly loud–an emotional assist to any team traveling around the world competing in any event, much less one that we are already very good at. Some of the names associated with the current US squad might be a bit unfamiliar to those who have fond memories of the 1999 Cup. That shouldn’t matter. Our squad is excellent. I’ve personally seen Hope Solo, Abby Wambach, and Megan Rapinoe play in the WPS and was mesmerized by Rapinoe in particular. There’s never been a better reason to turn on your TVs or pull up your browsers to cheer on our team. We’ve won several major competitions recently (including the Olympics gold medal in 2008 and the Algarve Cup in 2010 and 2011), but we’ve yet to regain the ultimate honor of World Champions since Brandi Chastain fell to the ground that day in 1999. The drought is full on, but I can’t imagine a team more eager to bring the rain.

[1] It also could have had something to do with the intense marketing of the event by ABC/ESPN.

[2] Also, there was that time the USMNT beat Spain 2-0 in the Confederations Cup.

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