The last hurrah? USA have blazed the trail but Europe is closing in

The US have won three World Cups, and also helped make the womens game what it is today. Even if their reign ends, they should be praised

It would be difficult to script a more idyllic beginning.

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.

Brandi
Brandi Chastains celebration at the end of the 1999 World Cup final is one of the most famous images in womens football. Photograph: Branimir Kvartuc/REX/Shutterstock

But that USA team, dubbed the 99ers, kept striving. They leveraged their fame into setting up the first-ever professional womens football league in the world, the WUSA. The best players in the world, such as Chinas Sun Wen and Englands Kelly Smith, came to play. When the league was about to fold a few years later, it was the 99ers who took a pay cut to try and keep it alive. The US womens players, with their endeavor and generosity, pretty much single-handedly carved out the professional game from nothing.

The success of the current league, the seven-year-old NWSL, is still intertwined with the success of the US womens team; every member of the current squad plays in the league. It has survived on their victories, a total of four Olympic gold medal wins and three World Cups to date, including the most recent, in 2015.

Yet if this World Cup has showed anything, its that Europe is catching up, as traditional powers in the mens game put their weight behind their womens teams. The Netherlands have made it to their first World Cup final on the strength of performances from Arsenals Vivianne Miedema and Barcelonas Lieke Martens.

I think this could be a tipping point, unfortunately, says Wyant. For the US, it should motivate us to think about our womens professional league, about how were going to keep these women playing after college in a very competitive environment. Because when I think about teams in England and Spain, they can invest in these players from a very young age and it could make a big difference moving forward as to how it shakes up the world power structure.

Much has been made of the US teams attitude throughout this World Cup: the so-called arrogance, the pointed celebrations. But to label this team, or any womens team, as arrogant is to misunderstand womens sports entirely and the daily struggle for recognition and recompense. Still paid according to an archaic Fifa bonus structure that seriously undervalues the womens game, the US womens team is engaged in a federal lawsuit with US Soccer to demand equal pay with their counterparts on the mens team.

These are players who believe that womens rights are human rights and that equality is achievable and worth fighting for. This is a team for our time. So, if the sovereigns of womens soccer are to be deposed in years to come, may their reign end in scenes of triumph.

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