On a balmy August afternoon in 1985, the US womens national team warmed up for their first ever game on a pristine pitch in Jesolo, a stunning resort town on the Adriatic coast of Italy. The sky was cloudless, the stands were filled and, to make the visitors feel welcome, Bruce Springsteen boomed over the PA system.
In that moment, it hit USA goalkeeper Kim Wyant that she might be a part of history in the making. She looked around the stadium and thought, This is phenomenal. This is the first game that the US women are ever going to play, and Im on the field and I get to play in it.
But she never could have imagined how far history would take the US womens national team, to their fourth World Cup final, their third in a row, which will kick off in Lyon on Sunday night in front of tens of thousands of spectators, the climax of a competition that has smashed records and garnered a global audience of over a billion viewers across all platforms. The USA is the team to beat, an unparalleled, world-dominating squad of bold, eloquent, fierce, headline-grabbing athletes, a juggernaut barreling aside its competition with ruthless aplomb.
Back in Jesolo, things werent so peachy. The teams first game ended in defeat, felled by a lone strike from Italys Caroline Morace, compounded by a missed penalty from the USAs first player of the year, Sharon McMurtry. It didnt occur to the team that they might be worth more than $10 a day, or that they should have their own kits, not cast-off training wear from the mens team. As Wyant recalls, the [kits] fit just fine. They werent stained up or anything.
It would be a while before the players learned how to ask for more.
Womens football in the USA grew out of the college system, the product of Title IX legislation enacted in 1972 to prohibit sex discrimination in education. After the national team formed, competitive games were hard to come by. In 1987, it appears they only played once. Around the same time, a group of players was pushing Fifa to give the women their own World Cup. Michelle Akers, the USAs legendary centre-forward of the 1990s, travelled to Switzerland to sit in boardrooms with leading figures from the mens game such as Pele and Franz Beckenbauer. Akers, a free-scoring powerhouse who played at the highest level while managing a chronic health condition, had to sit and listen while the men debated whether women could cope with their own tournament.
It was decided they could, as long as the games only lasted 80 minutes, the tournament was played in China, the competition wasnt televised to the outside world and the official World Cup brand wasnt tainted by association.
It was Akers and the USA team who won the snappily titled Fifa World Championship for Womens Football for the M&Ms Cup in 1991, which was retroactively named the first Fifa Womens World Cup. They defeated arch-rivals Norway 2-1 in front of 63,000 spectators in Guangzhou, and the players wept and cheered as they held the trophy aloft and flew back home to total anonymity.
It didnt suit them.
The team kept playing hard and overcoming disappointments like defeat in the semi-finals of the 1995 World Cup to eventual winners Norway. At the 1996 Olympics, goals from Mia Ham and Tiffeny Milbrett secured the US the first gold medals for womens football against a technical and tenacious China team.
Some teams might have sat back and reveled in their success, but not this one. For the next three years they prepared for the 1999 World Cup, which the USA was hosting, by going on the road to drum up support, meeting fans, hosting open training sessions and attracting publicity for the womens game. Their relentless drive paid off, culminating in a penalty shootout win over China in front of a crowd of 90,000 at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena. The famous image of Brandi Chastains shirt-waving celebration brought womens football to the attention of the world.