The Long Way Home


It will be the largest womens-only sporting event in history and there won’t be a figure skater or gymnast in sight.

It’s the Women’s World Cup— the third ever, beginning June 19 and running through July 10— and the crowning event in a short but illustrious history that stands to make auspicious strides this summer for women’s soccer here and abroad, and the United States is playing host. The U.S. Women’s National Team itself was established in 1985, so the road here has only been 14 years long for the home squad. But the distance that the sport itself has traveled in the eyes of the world, the pockets of the sponsors, and the hearts and calves of its players is immeasurable.

In the early years, players got games where they could. If they weren’t in college, the dedicated coached to make a living. According to legendary U.S. forward Michelle Akers, who has been with the team since the beginning, competitive life for a female soccer player in the U.S. was “nonexistent” before the World Cup. The National Team played maybe a handful of games a year, primarily in tournaments overseas, and there was little or no money beyond per diem and expenses. In 1988 and ’92 women’s soccer was just an Olympic demonstration sport. But soon after, having their own world championship became a growing priority for female athletes around the world, and FIFA, soccer’s international governing body, got the message. So in 1988, the world’s top teams were invited to a sort of “mock” World Cup in China. FIFA was watching, and the tournament’s success prompted the first ever Women’s World Cup, held in the same country in 1991.

“I didn’t understand really what a World Cup was, what I was missing, what it would mean to have one,” said Akers. Perhaps one of the first noticeable effects of having a world championship was felt months before the tournament, when the United States Soccer Federation (USSF) started paying its players around $1000 a month and $45 a day compensation for missing work when they had to train. But most important, Akers said, the World Cup gave the players something to aim for besides creative ways of making their rent. “It’s the ultimate opportunity to compete. It feeds the fire.”

In 1991 Akers’s fire couldn’t be contained. And when she combined forces with forwards April Heinrichs (then captain) and 1991 World Cup Golden Ball (MVP) awardee Carin Gabarra (then Jennings), the Chinese press called the three turf terrors the “triple-edged sword,” as they sliced through defense after defense. Akers scored five goals in a 7-0 rout of China. Jennings had a hat trick in the 5-2 semifinal win over Germany. Then Akers scored both goals in the 2-1 championship win over Norway, played in front of 65,000 fans in Guangzhou. All three “edges” made the top five in scoring. People magazine crowned Akers the Michael Jordan of soccer, and her tournament was so spectacular, one was almost tempted to bronze the Golden Shoe that the fleet-footed forward was awarded for being the tourney’s top goal scorer.

The sport continued to grow, and the team was put on full-time contracts in 1994, with payment ranging between $25,000 and $40,000 (plus incentives), in preparation for the 1995 Women’s World Cup in Sweden. The pressure to repeat was high, and things couldn’t have started off worse as Akers was injured just seven minutes into the opening game, a 3-3 draw with China. Things grew darker when goalkeeper Brianna Scurry was ejected on a controversial call in game two, a 2-0 win over Denmark. And the crowds weren’t the same as in China. Said Akers, “We stepped onto the field sometimes saying, ‘This doesn’t feel like a World Cup.’ ”

The U.S. lost in the semifinals to Norway, who would go on to win the title. But when it was all over the women held up a handmade sign to show the world: “We’ll be back— Atlanta ’96.”

Boy, were they.

The Olympics that year were a huge step forward for the women’s game. Contests were intense, the stadiums were packed, and the fans were far from disappointed. And at the end of it all, the members of the U.S. team were draped with the first Olympic gold medal ever awarded in women’s soccer.

That tourney did publicity wonders for the team, but the World Cup here in 1999 stands to make an even bigger soccer splash. “The Women’s World Cup is our event, for our sport, and we’re the ‘show,’ ” Akers explained.

The considerable success the U.S. women have already had is, in many ways, surprising, considering the lack of interest in soccer at the professional level in the United States.

“The huge disadvantage in the United States is that you don’t grow up watching soccer,” said star midfielder Julie Foudy. Despite this drawback, the U.S. is successful because, as Foudy puts it, “We let women play.” After the 1995 Women’s World Cup, Sepp Blatter, then FIFA secretary general and now its president, was quoted in the press as saying that he expected as many women as men to be playing soccer in 2010, but only where “religious, societal, and cultural restrictions permitted.” Elsewhere, women aren’t encouraged to lace up the cleats, even if the culture lives and breathes soccer and their men dominate the sport.

“A perfect example is Brazil,” Foudy pointed out. “Nonexistent 10 years ago. I would have laughed if someone said they could win it in 10 years. But they’ve gotten more organized. It’s still not up to par, but they’ve got so much talent that, if they ever get totally organized,” she laughed, “everyone else is in big trouble.”

“This is my game. This is My Future. Watch Me Play.” That’s the slogan of this Women’s World Cup. Sixty-three countries set out to put their game on display— and 16 (up from 12 in ’91 and ’95) will get the chance.

The U.S. is in Group A and will make its debut in the opener on June 19 in Giants Stadium against Denmark, who came in seventh and sixth (respectively) in ’91 and ’95. With the exception of Norway, Denmark posts the best record against the U.S. with a 3-6-1 mark. Nigeria, also in Group A, is making its third trip to the World Cup and great things are expected from “Marvelous” Mercy Akide: keeping up with her coif is almost as hard as keeping up with her moves. Rounding out the group, and in the World Cup for the first time, is North Korea, who is expected to play a more technical game, as opposed to the highly physical one expected from Denmark. The U.S. has never gone up against Nigeria or North Korea before, and it’s hard to know what to expect from them. But all three U.S. opponents can expect a grueling game.

American vets include phenom-forward Mia Hamm, who has agility, accuracy, and a building named after her on the Nike campus in Oregon. Julie Foudy cocaptains the team with defender Carla Overbeck. She is joined at midfield by Kristine Lilly, who has more caps (international game appearances) than any man or woman in the history of soccer. And this will be the last World Cup for trailblazing Michelle Akers, who plans on retiring after the 2000 Olympics. Other key vets include Joy Fawcett, Brandi Chastain, and keeper Brianna Scurry.

Being considered the best women’s side in the world is not easy for the U.S., as the team heads into its biggest tournament ever— on home turf, no less. Taking them there is coach Tony DiCicco, who has been with the team since 1991 and was named head coach in 1994. His squad is experienced— there are eight players with over 100 caps— and successful. And according to both Foudy and Akers, their challenge will be to stay focused. “I think that we’re the best team in the world but we can’t expect to just show up and win,” Akers said.

Certainly expectations are highest for the home team, and a successful World Cup here could do wonders for the game at all levels, and create needed momentum for the professional women’s league that is currently set to be launched after the 2000 Olympics. Change in coverage is already evident. “There’s hardly time to wipe your nose,” laughs Akers when asked about the increase in demand, especially compared to the early days. “It’s kind of a pain in the butt, but in looking at the big picture, it’s good. It shows the sport has grown.”

“It’s a long time coming,” agrees Foudy. “I’m glad it’s finally here.”