The first Women's World Cup


The origin story of the United States Women's National Team, and their historic victory at the first-ever Women's World Cup in 1991.


JAMES: I’m James Parkinson and this is By Association, a show about football and the human connection behind the beautiful game.


JAMES: On the 5th of July 2015, the United States Women’s National Team were crowned World Champions, following a 5-2 win over Japan.

JAMES: The Final was the most watched football match in US history, reaching 23 million viewers across the nation - and the 2015 tournament as a whole, hit 750 million TV viewers globally - a new record for the Women’s World Cup.

JAMES: The victory for the USA solidified the team’s place at the top of the sport, and its popularity and cultural significance in North America. So how did the US Women reach this point? Well, it all begun the 1970s.


JAMES: Women have been playing football since the sports inception, but the 70s was when the professional game began to develop. In the United States, it would still be some years before the first professional women’s league would be established, but the early growth of the sport in the country was triggered by the introduction of Title IX - a legislation from the US government, otherwise known as the Education Amendments Act of 1972.

CAITLIN: So Title IX was one sentence, thirty seven words in a much larger law dealing with higher education.

JAMES: This is Caitlin Murray - journalist, and author of the book ‘The National Team: The Inside Story of the Women Who Changed Soccer’.

CAITLIN: The word 'sports' is not in that law, the word 'athletics'. All it said was that “on the basis of sex, people could not be discriminated against from education programs or activities, by any institution receiving federal financial assistance”.

CAITLIN: So, suddenly that meant that if a school was offering scholarships to men to play sports, they had to do it for women. And instantly there was a huge incentive for girls around the country to start taking sports seriously.

JAMES: And it also meant universities were creating more teams and sports programs to meet that demand. It kickstarted a whole new era for college sports - and its importance for the growth of football in the United States was pivotal.

CAITLIN: And then when these women got into college and started playing for their college teams, they were in these competitive environments where they were training regularly and playing games regularly. So Title IX completely changed the landscape of sports in the United States.

JAMES: Increased participation and competitive matches across the country saw a strong pool of quality athletes begin to develop, which in turn laid the foundation for a women’s national team, officially established in 1985.

CLEMENTE: Women’s soccer grew in the 1970s, so by the time they got to 1985 there was enough of a rich pool of players to actually cultivate from, because women had been playing soccer here for you know, 15 years at least, in some cases more. But soccer sort of became the bi-product of that law that was passed.

JAMES: That’s Clemente Lisi - author of the book 'The U.S. Women’s Soccer Team: An American Success Story'.

CLEMENTE: And so, there was a thought at the Federation level, “oh maybe we should invest in a women’s team”.

JAMES: By this point, many other nations around the world had established their own women’s teams, mostly playing exhibition matches and small invitational tournaments among themselves. For the United States, their first match came against Italy, in Italy on August 18, 1985, playing under inaugural Head Coach Mike Ryan. It was part of a four-team tournament known as Mundialito, or “Little World Cup”. The Americans were defeated by the hosts 1-0.

JAMES: According to US Soccer, the players were paid $10 a day, and received a free pair of shoes. These were obviously very different times, but over the following few years, the United States began to establish themselves as a competitive team.

APRIL: In the early years, we depended on our physical and our psychological qualities. And of course we could play football too - there’s a lot of people that probably dismissed some of our football-playing qualities even back then. But if you watch any of the video, it’s still pretty good football.

JAMES: This is April Heinrichs.

APRIL: My name’s April Heinrichs. In 1991 I was the captain and a forward for the US Women’s National Team.

JAMES: With the growth of women’s football, FIFA finally responded by introducing the first Women’s World Cup. Here’s Clemente again.

CLEMENTE: Yeah, so at the time the President of FIFA was Joaõ Havelange. You know, they want to spread the sport around as much as much as they can, so the idea was “let’s create a Women’s World Cup, you know maybe it’ll be small but it’ll still look like we’re doing something. We’re involved in women’s sports somehow”, because at that point FIFA really was just the men’s game.

JAMES: By 1991, women’s national teams were growing in numbers, but only 12 places were offered for the inaugural World Cup. But as Caitlin explains, there were still qualifiers. And for the United States, that meant a trip to the Caribbean.

CAITLIN: To qualify for the 1991 World Cup, they had to go through qualification in Haiti. And it was a very new thing, I don’t think the people in Haiti had ever seen anything quite like it. People had climbed up into trees that were overlooking the stadium and kinda watched from branches, because it was so packed and people wanted to see what this was all about.

JAMES: The qualification process begun with two group games. First up, the US defeated Mexico 12-0 on the 18th of April, before dispatching Trinidad and Tobago 10-0 four days later. Then at the Semi-Final stage, they faced the home side, Haiti.

CAITLIN: The players were given these white roses by the heads of US Soccer to try to win over the crowd.

APRIL: That was an unbelievably memorable experience on and off the field.

JAMES: Here’s April again.

APRIL: After the national anthem we jogged over to the fence and threw our flowers over to the fans. The Haitians threw them right back [laughs]. But by the time the score was 3-0 they were cheering every one of our passes, and they were really embracing us.

JAMES: The game finished 10-0 and the United States were through to the Final match, three days later, where they’d face Canada. But the Canadians were no match for the USA either - the US winning 5-0 to book their place in the World Cup.


JAMES: The 1991 World Cup was hosted in China - and although it’s recognised as the inaugural tournament today - at the time, because FIFA viewed this as a sort of trial event, it was known by a different name.

CAITLIN: It was called the “First FIFA World Championship for Women's Football for the M&Ms Cup”.

JAMES: Seriously, that’s what they called it. M&M’s, the chocolate candy, were granted naming rights, being the tournament’s only sponsor.

CAITLIN: FIFA was worried that this event would not be worthy of being called a World Cup, so they gave it this ridiculous name. There was talk of using a lighter ball - they eventually used just the standard sized ball. They did shorten the matches to 80 minutes.

CLEMENTE: I think FIFA at the time realised, “we don’t really know if anyone will care”, you know, China got the hosting rights - China not known for being a soccer playing nation. So it’s interesting that FIFA didn’t really put a lot of time and energy into it. The tournament also was held in November. So if you look at the soccer calendar, November is not really a time where people are paying attention to international tournaments. There were no opposing fans here, you know it was really Chinese fans in the stands. You know, there were no people from Norway or Sweden or the United States travelling to watch this thing. So it wasn’t even meant to draw tourists, it was just meant to have - let’s have this tournament, let’s see what it’s like and let’s take it from there.

JAMES: Between the end of qualifying in April and the start of the tournament in November, the US would train about once a month. Head Coach Anson Dorrance focused on physical and mental strength in order to prepare and motivate his team. Here’s April.

APRIL: You know, we trained pretty vigorously, we did a lot of fitness because, again, that was our strength. Our coach was brilliant, Anson Dorrance - was a highly motivational, charismatic coach. He would say to us, you know, “make training harder than the game, so that when you get to the game, you’re comfortable”. Or, “always imagine somebody else is out there training harder than you are”. Or, “make sure you’re the hardest working person you know”. Because if all twenty plus of us - twenty five of us - are trying to be the hardest working player, then we’re not going to get outworked.

JAMES: The United States were a young team, with an average age of 23, but their college experience set them apart from the other competing nations. And they were eager to represent their country at the highest level, for what was still a very new thing. The squad included players like Mia Hamm, Brandi Chastain, Julie Foudy and Michelle Akers.

But despite the dedication and professionalism of these players, the national team setup that surrounded them was nothing like you’d see with many full timers today.

CAITLIN: So instead of just flying directly to China, the US team actually flew the opposite way around the world, so they could pick up the Swedish and Norwegian teams on the way. So it was a pretty long journey to even get there.

CLEMENTE: Yeah, this is nothing glamorous, this is not a glamorous lifestyle at all. So the federation at the time, the US Soccer Federation didn’t have a lot of money, and the money they did have, they were going to spend of the men’s team, not the women’s team.

APRIL: We had the boys Under 16 hand-me-down uniforms given to us, and someone washed the red socks with the white jersey and so we had pink uniforms for a few times.

JAMES: But at the time, the players didn’t know any different. For them, this was a new and exciting adventure.

APRIL: You know, I have always tried to gently correct people when they talk about the sacrifices we 91ers made. They weren't sacrifices. Those were choices we were making, we were doing exactly what we wanted to do, we were loving it.

JAMES: And once they arrived in China, it was down to business.


JAMES: The 1991 World Cup was played in six stadiums, across four host cities - with three of those stadiums in Guangzhou. The 12 teams were divided into three groups of four, and the United States were drawn into Group B, alongside Sweden, Brazil and Japan. The Americans begun the group stage on November 17 against Sweden.

APRIL: There was this sense of, you know, incredible nervousness because its your first ever world event, your first game. It’s Sweden, they’re quite good. So enormous stress. We jumped out early on them.

JAMES: Carin Jennings lead the way for the US, with goals either side of half time....then Mia Hamm put her team 3-0 up on 62 minutes.

APRIL: And then they started coming back.

JAMES: Sweden scored twice in the 65th and 71st minutes, putting the pressure back on the Americans. But the US managed to hold on to secure their first ever victory in a World Cup.

APRIL: You know, it had those nervy moments and you know, we were happy to get away with three points against a really good team.

JAMES: Next up was Brazil, which proved to be an easier match, and also saw April on the scoresheet, twice, despite coming into the tournament fresh from a knee operation eight weeks prior.

APRIL: Against Brazil, we started to get a little more comfortable in the environment. You know, your nerves from the first game are behind you, you get a little bit settled in and we started to play some good soccer.

JAMES: April scored in the 23rd and 35th minutes - then Carin Jennings followed up with a third goal for the US in the 38th minute. Michelle Akers then scored a minute later to make it four, and Mia Hamm rounded out the strong performance with a fifth goal in the second half.

APRIL: Now we have six points after beating Brazil and we’re in a really good spot to advance.

JAMES: In the third group game, the US faced Japan and continued their dominance on the pitch, winning 3-0.

APRIL: The third game for us, gave us an opportunity to get players some playing time and to rest some players. Japan was the Japan of today. They were the same kind of football playing nation but they didn’t have the same competitiveness. They were just, really, this incredibly technical team. But after the 60 minute mark we start to wear teams down, that was the case with Japan.

JAMES: In the Quarter Finals, the USA came up against Chinese Taipei - and it was another clinical performance from the Americans, winning 7-0.


JAMES: The United States had come into the tournament as favourites, so their strong performances weren’t unexpected. But what was surprising was the way the Chinese people reacted to the event. In every group match, the stadiums were filled, almost to capacity. And sure, these were 12-15,000 thousand seater venues, but this was far beyond what anyone had anticipated, especially FIFA. But the locals had fully embraced the tournament. And April says that excitement extended to off the pitch as well.

APRIL: When you leave the stadium, they literally were smothering our bus, the Chinese people were just huddled around our bus like we were the Beatles or something. They knew we were there. They were honking their horns and reaching out to touch us, and whistling and celebrating, and really honoring us.


JAMES: In 1991, media coverage was pretty limited; the matches were shown on TV, but not broadcast live, and of course there was no internet or social media.

JAMES: By the time the Semi Finals came around, word of the USA’s run in the tournament began to spread back home in the States. And a few select newspapers sent reporters to cover the tail end of the competition, including The New York Times and USA Today.

JAMES: On the 27th of November, the United States faced Germany in the Semi Final. And this was probably their biggest test yet.

APRIL: So at the time, Germany was the best team in the world - Germany and Norway, it was a coin toss, top 2 teams in the world back in 1991 as well. They had a pro league, their players were getting paid, and they had some superstars on their team.

APRIL: I remember us very much being the underdog, so to speak. You know, we had a team meeting between the Quarters and the Semi Finals and it was really, sort of this moment where players started to believe that we could win the World Cup. And that if we stuck together, if we played our style, if we took our style of play to Germany - we played a high pressing 3-4-3 system - if we pressed them, we could unsettle them. Because I remember our coach saying at the time, “The Germans will not change their style, they will not change”, so we kind of knew what they were going to do.

JAMES: The American’s started the match on the front foot, putting the pressure firmly on Germany. And before their opponents knew what hit them, Carin Jennings put the USA up 1-0 on 10 minutes - and then another...and another…Just over half an hour gone and the United States were 3-0 up.

JAMES: Germany pulled a goal back before half time to salvage some hope - but April would go on to score on 54 minutes to regain control for her team. The Germans hit back again, but the USA were too strong; April netting her second goal of the game after 75 minutes to round out the 5-2 victory.


JAMES: The USA’s opponent in the Final was confirmed to be Norway, who had defeated Sweden 2-1 in their Semi.

JAMES: Unlike the previous matches, in which the stadium capacity hadn’t exceeded 15,000, the Final would be played in a 63,000 seater - and the Chinese public packed it out.

JAMES: For the USA, the team could really sense the occasion, and they knew they were on the cusp of something great. April describes the anticipation as the game approached.

APRIL: I can remember driving to the Finals; the bus was packed, you know, we had a police escort in the front and the back and the sides. There were Chinese motorcycles pulling up alongside our bus, the windows were open all the time. And again, you know, you felt like we were rock stars.

APRIL: The stadium, when you walked into the stadium, the 63,000 people - you had the volume of people, the heat and humidity of the temperatures. And then the moment, the meaning of the moment - it almost took your breath away, it was almost suffocating to walk into the stadium. So it was a very difficult environment to play in.

JAMES: As many finals are, the match was a much cagier affair, and not the kind of goal fest that played out previously. But for the USA, they continued their trend of scoring first and stamping their authority. Michell Akers put the American’s ahead on 20 minutes with a perfectly timed glancing header, showing little sign of being affected by the occasion.

JAMES: It was Norway’s turn next, as they levelled the score on 29 minutes and leave the teams even going into the break.

JAMES: In the second half, only one more goal would be scored. It took until the 78th minute, but Michelle Akers was again the hero, as the United States claimed the first Women’s World Cup.

APRIL: And then when we won, there was jubilation and you know I look - I see the video of me receiving the trophy, I’ve seen that many, many times. I’ve not watched myself play since the 90s, but I’ve seen the video of that moment and it never gets old. You know, they gave the trophy to me and I jumped and turned and just fell into my teammates arms. So that little “GIF”, if you will, in today’s language, is etched in my mind forever. I can’t remember the scores, I can’t remember if I scored, can’t even remember if I played well in most of the games I played in. But I’ll remember that moment for the rest of my life.


JAMES: The ‘91 World Cup proved to be a trigger point. Although the USA finished third at 1995 tournament - which by this stage, FIFA had actually named the ‘World Cup’ - in 1996, women’s football was part of the Olympics for the first time, and the United States went on to win a gold medal in front of 76,000 fans in Athens, Georgia.

JAMES: Then in 1999, the US Women’s National Team lifted the World Cup for a second time, and on home soil - a result that really brought the women’s game to fore. Here’s Clemente Lisi again.

CLEMENTE: And so it really became an iconic moment. If you asked someone, what are the ten iconic moments in sports history, that one is on the list. So that shows you how in a span of just eight years, they went from total obscurity to being one of the biggest media darlings in the world.

JAMES: Women’s football has faced, and continues to face many challenges and setbacks, both in the United States and around the world; professional leagues come and go and equal pay is a constant fight. In fact, during my production of this story, the current US team filed a law suit for gender discrimination again US Soccer.

JAMES: Things have come pretty far, but there is still a long way to go. What is clear though, is that the 1991 team left a legacy that completely changed the women’s game. Here’s Caitlin Murray again.

CAITLIN: The players who pioneered the women’s national team and women’s soccer in the United States, these were players that really did it for the love of the game, it was a very pure sort of motivation. And they did so much behind the scenes to fight for better pay, better treatment.

CLEMENTE: When you think back to those 1990s on the US women’s team, you really think about, “wow, these people were laying a foundation, whether they knew it or not”, that really now the team is reaping the benefits of and not just the team - women’s soccer on a global scale is.

APRIL: There’s a core belief system that the ‘91 team established the whole culture of the US Women’s National team program. The culture of competitiveness, worth ethic is still there today. And I felt so blessed at the time and I feel honoured every time somebody asks about it, and the older I get now, the more reflective I am about how lucky I am about those times. I’m really proud of the ‘91 team and our era. Really proud.


JAMES: Many thanks to April, Caitlin and Clemente for being part of this episode.

JAMES: If this story has left you wanting more, I strongly recommend you read both Caitlin and Clemente's books - they're both available now: ‘The National Team: The Inside Story of the Women Who Changed Soccer’ and ‘The U.S. Women’s Soccer Team: An American Success Story’.

JAMES: By Association is produced by me, James Parkinson. The theme song is composed by Nic Buchannan, with other music in this episode from Blue Dot Sessions. Artwork is by Andrew Weber, with illustration by Moonshine Madness.

JAMES: If you enjoy the show, please share it with a friend. It really helps. You can follow the show on Twitter and Instagram @ byassociationfc. And learn more at the website, Thanks for listening.