The 1999 U.S. women’s soccer team captivated nearly the entire nation when it won the third FIFA World Cup in front of 90,000 fans at the Rose Bowl in California. But in both 2003 and 2007, the Americans finished third in the World Cup while watching Germany take the titles.
The U.S. won the 2008 Olympic gold medal, however, and is ranked number one as it aims to recapture the World Cup that begins later this month in Germany.
The anticipation for the women’s World Cup soccer is larger than ever. But it has not always been that way. U.S. national team head coach Pia Sundhage remembers it differently growing up in Sweden in the 1960s.
“I played with boys," she said. "They actually changed my name to Pelle because I wasn’t allowed to play.”
The first FIFA Women’s World Cup took place in 1991, 61 years after the first men’s tournament. During the famous Mia Hamm era, the U.S. national team won both in 1991 and 1999. The 1999 tournament, played in the United States, set new records for attendance, media coverage, TV audiences and live broadcasts.
Hamm scored a total of 158 international goals in her career, more than any other player, male or female, in the history of the sport.
“I hope our participation has helped," said Hamm. "It's something that as players, I think we took a great deal, amount of responsibility in making sure that future generations, both domestically and internationally, had opportunities that maybe we didn’t have.”
This year’s national team boasts only one player from the 1999 team. Christie Rampone, the team captain, was then only 24 years old. Today she is a mother of two and about to play in her fourth World Cup.
“The ‘fab five’ was definitely the pioneers of soccer with Mia and Julie [Foudy] and Kristine Lilly and Joy [Fawcett] and Carla [Overbeck]," said Rampone. "You know it was just amazing to play with them and be a part of that 1999 team and experience that, and now it’s trying to lead on to the next generation in helping support them in getting that title and getting the title back.”
To get that title back, the team has trained together nearly non-stop for the past six months. The Americans are ranked number one, but they put their World Cup goals in jeopardy after losing to Mexico last year. They had to win a two-game qualifying playoff against Italy to get the 16th and final spot. Sundhage thinks the bumpy road to the tournament was a team-builder.
"We were nervous but we came out stronger after those two games and we actually lost two games against Sweden and England this year," she said. "But I think that’s a good thing. I will look at it as a teaching moment and stay humble. It’s a reminder of what you need in order to be successful. This team is just phenomenal when it comes to attitude.”
The team spent an entire week in New Jersey preparing for a "friendly" game against Mexico. The Americans dominated the game, but missed one scoring chance after another - 34 to be exact. In the 92nd minute, substitute Lauren Cheney scored a long-range goal after launching a 25-meter blast. Rampone said getting the win was significant.
“We’ve been working so hard, and especially the way we played Mexico in the last game, and coming out and playing well today, the last game leading to the World Cup," Rampone said. "I think it’s just going to give us that momentum heading to Germany with some confidence.”
The sixth edition of the Women’s World Cup will be hosted by two-time World Cup champion Germany. Half a million tickets already have been sold and all 32 games will be televised live in the United States.
“When I first started in 1999, the crowds were big," said Rampone."The fans were filling the seats. So now it’s exciting for these younger kids and the girls that didn’t experience to come to a major tournament and really appreciate and deserve what they work for. I think we’re ready for this tournament. It will be nice that the stands will be packed and the adrenaline will be going.”
The U.S. team flies to Austria on June 14 for training and a final friendly warm-up match against Norway. The American women open their World Cup campaign against North Korea in Dresden, Germany, on June 28, and also play first-round games against Colombia and Sweden.