Standing in the middle of Giants Stadium in the moments before the opening match of the 1999 Women’s World Cup, U.S. forward Tiffeny Milbrett had no solid plans to go beyond pregame pleasantries when team captain Carla Overbeck introduced her to FIFA president Sepp Blatter. But before Overbeck could utter “and this
is . . . ” Milbrett waved her arms over her head in a circling motion, instructing the grand pooh-bah
of international soccer to take a look around.
“See how popular women’s football is,” she said, as if to quell any lingering doubts that female sports can be a big-league draw. Prior to her statement, Milbrett said she didn’t think the Blatt-man had intended to kiss her— he wasn’t smooching freely on the receiving line— but after that, he did. And laughed.
Said Milbrett: “I thought, ‘Great. Now I have the smell of his cologne on me. Just what I wanted.’ ”
If Milbrett caught Blatter off guard, it was the only real surprise of the day.
The U.S. was expected to win: It did. Mia Hamm was expected to score: She did. It couldn’t have been scripted better, the most noticeable face scoring the first goal in the opening match in front of 78,972, the largest crowd ever to watch a women’s sporting event.
Milbrett said her point was, “See? It’s not just a good ol’ boys club anymore. It’s a good ol’ soccer club.” And that point was driven home with a sledgehammer by the WWC organizing committee, headed up by Marla Messing. From grassroots recruitment at youth soccer tourneys to slick Nike ads, Messing and company convinced hundreds of thousands that the Women’s World Cup was the place to be, the event to see. Chuckles from over a year ago when Messing announced that she intended to forgo the sissy stadium route and sell out the big ones were silenced not only by the screams of thousands of 12-year-old girls in face paint, but by frat boys and Brazilian samba drummers and Sam’s Army and so on. The same kids who contorted themselves and their camera-toting parents to get a look at ‘N Sync during the opening ceremonies were also on their tiptoes, trying to get a peek at Pelé as he walked down the aisle a few sections over to take his seat.
The game had its moments— all three U.S. goals were beauties and, oddly enough, lefties. Hamm’s work of athletic art plastered the back of the net in the 17th minute. The phenom forward— who was a threat every time she touched the ball— said, “Are you kiddin’ me? I never score goals like that!” And in reference to her own goal, midfielder Julie Foudy was more characteristically, well, Foudy-esque, and laughed, “My left foot is a peg. I usually only use it for balance.” After scoring, she did just that— with arms outspread, in a goal celebration homage to Austin Powers. The highly capped and underappreciated Kristine Lilly put away goal number three in what was an otherwise lopsided match, despite some threatening runs by Denmark’s Lene Jensen Revsbeck.
But what the game lacked in competitive balance and intrigue it made up for in atmosphere, ticket sales, and history.
And just as Milbrett was left with the lingering scent of Blatter’s cologne, so were those on hand at Giants Stadium or watching across the world left with their own olfactory feast.
The sweet smell of success.