Sports

08.20.13

America’s World Cup Warriors

A new ESPN documentary goes inside one of the most legendary women’s teams in American sports history.

Soccer, fútbol, kura, calico, nogomet, futbolas, jalgpall, podosphero—it’s a game that is undeniably the world’s most popular sport, played from Bangladesh to Brasília, from the dusty deserts of Africa, where any kid with a spherical object and a pair of sneaks can pretend he’s the next Pelé, to the riotous stadiums of Europe’s elite clubs, where the Ronaldos and Rooneys of the world make their goals and collect their staggering riches. And yet, in the late ’90s, in that bastion of football recalcitrance known as the United States, not only was soccer a marginal sport, commanding barely a fraction of the fan base and ad sales of the Super Bowl or the World Series, it also was largely a sport for men.

The few and the devoted who followed along in 1994, when the men’s World Cup graced American soil, might remember a handful of players—a mop-headed defender named Alexi Lalas, dreadlocked midfielder Cobi Jones—or perhaps that the U.S. made it to the second round before being defeated by the eventual champions from Brazil. But hardly anyone paid attention to the national women’s team, even though the girls swept the 1991 FIFA Women’s World Cup in far-off Guangdong. The female players were unknowns; their pay was pretty paltry; they were the marginalized members of an already-marginal hometown pastime.

So who could have guessed that before the decade was out, not only would the nation be swept with World Cup fever—and for a women’s tourney, at that—but that every little girl in America would know the name of Mia Hamm, that close to 100,000 fans would attend the final at Pasadena’s Rose Bowl, and that the team would go down as one of the toughest, most talented group of players in American sports history? The story of that dynamic group of 20 women, and their quest to win the championship, is being revisited by ESPN in a new documentary out Tuesday night, The 99ers, which reunites eight of soccer’s all-time greats to reminisce on that banner year and debate their impact on the next generation of female athletes.

The film is the brainchild of Julie Foudy, now an analyst for ABC and ESPN, who was also a midfielder on the ’99 World Cup team and the group’s unofficial videographer. Splicing together her behind-the-scenes footage from the Cup saga with breathtaking montages from the games and quieter moments at a group reunion 14 years later—in the same stadium where the women played their final match—Foudy captures a portrait of a team full of fierce warriors and practical jokers who played hard both on and off the field and loved each other with a magnitude of heart that approached the sublime.

When other players saw the U.S. women coming, they knew to quake in their cleats. They were gritty, these girls—there was Kristine Lilly, whose aggressive headers perplexed many a goalie; Michelle Akers, 5 feet and 10 inches of lean muscle, who used to eye the other team and think, “It’s gonna be a bad day for you guys. You guys are going to want to leave ... Oh, you’re gonna have a hard day”; Briana Scurry, the goalie with an intimidating style of play, who liked to range far out of the box to pounce on incoming balls. There was defender Brandi Chastain (you might remember her sports-bra moment) and team captain Carla Overbeck, whose cool head kept the team on track. There was Foudy, with her nimble footwork and her lightning-quick strikes, and the indefatigable Joy Fawcett. And, of course, there was Mia Hamm—the face of the team, the iconic Mia, all dark-eyed intensity and rugged determination. She was sporty, not sexy; gritty, not glitzy; and even so, kids obsessively cut her pictures out of Sports Illustrated, men painted her name on their abs, and the press dogged her every move, detaining her after practice for endless interviews while the rest of the team got to goof off on the bus. Irony was, Hamm didn’t particularly like or seek the spotlight, but she knew it was a once-in-a-lifetime chance to advocate for her teammates and bring attention to the sport. “We felt bad that you were shouldering the brunt of it,” Overbeck tells Hamm at the reunion. “You carried us on your shoulders for a long time,” Foudy adds. “Even in negotiating contracts ... Mia saying in negotiations, ‘I don’t want to get paid more.’ Taking it to that degree.”

“That was my goal, every time I stood in front of the camera,” Hamm replies, “to let you know I appreciated you and I played for you guys.”

They were well on their way to becoming America’s darlings, but at heart, they were still the refreshingly real girls next door.

And yet, for all the pressure on her, Hamm could be one of the group’s biggest, well, hams. In Foudy’s original footage from inside the locker rooms, on the agonizingly long bus rides, and—once the team’s fortunes improved—in the bellies of chartered planes, these illustrious athletes act as silly as schoolgirls. They pop each other’s zits. They do ridiculous dance moves. They belt out the summer’s chart topper “Livin’ la Vida Loca.” They kick around the sarcasm and spout potty humor and show off their tongue rings and generally behave like a very rowdy bachelorette party. They compete to see who can fill up the drug-test urine cup with the amplest amounts of pee and roundly mock Chastain after she does a nude photo shoot for Gear magazine. In one particularly slapstick shot, Hamm—dressed like Indiana Jones and sporting a bad British accent—tackles a plastic bear on the turf of what appears to be a dense suburban lawn. They were well on their way to becoming America’s darlings, sure, but at heart, they were still the refreshingly real girls next door.

That is, until game time rolled around. From the very first match in the ’99 World Cup, it was clear that the Americans were a force to be reckoned with. At first, the girls weren’t sure that the Cup would sell enough tickets to fill the professional stadiums they were slated to play. But the moment was ripe for a female sports supernova, and by the eve of the inaugural match against Denmark at Giants Stadium, close to 79,000 people turned out cheer for their countrywomen—a record for a women’s sporting event at the time. The atmosphere was electric, and the women’s hearts were racing. In the locker room, head coach Tony DiCicco gave them a pep talk. “You guys have been preparing for this event your whole lives ... You are so ready. Just go out there and play your game.” The team entered onto the green under the klieg lights and the roaring crowd. “Just don’t let me throw up,” Hamm said out loud. She didn’t have to worry—a mere 18 minutes in, Chastain floated a pass down the field, and Hamm slammed the ball into the net just under the crossbar. In the second half, the momentum picked up—Foudy and Lilly both scored spectacular goals, while Scurry held the Danes at bay for a shutout.

That first easy success was soon followed by a 7–1 rout of Nigeria in Chicago and a 3–0 win over North Korea to close out the group stage. In an otherwise slow summer for sports, the women were suddenly on the front page of every newspaper and a regular feature on primetime broadcasts. They were playing sold-out games. Fans begged for articles of their clothing. “I felt like, wow, all the naysayers—we proved them wrong,” remembers Lilly.

They were on top of the world—and it all almost came crashing down during the opening minutes of their quarterfinal match against Germany. At the outset, the girls had been in fine spirits, trash-talking the opponents (“It’s a bad day to be German!”) and riding high off their string of successes. And then, in the fifth minute, Chastain tried to pass the ball back to Scurry and ended up scoring a goal against her own team. In a crucial game, against a formidable opponent, it was a terrible mistake to make. “What the hell just happened?!” thought Overbeck, the team captain, in a panic. At that moment, seeing Chastain’s face, she knew she needed “to get to her. Because I know what I’d be doing to myself if I did that.” She approached Chastain and told her “We need you. Forget about it; it’s over. We need you.”

America forged ahead and tied it up, but just before halftime, Germany scored again. The team, dejected and demoralized, slouched away to recoup. “Don’t let your dream end today,” Dicicco told them. It was a call to arms that Chastain took to heart. Back out on the field for the second half, she drove hard toward the German goal and sent the ball soaring into the net. An elated Chastain collapsed on the green and lifted her hands to the universe, in a primal gesture of gratitude and redemption. Shortly thereafter, a well-placed penalty kick found Fawcett’s forehead for America’s winning goal, and the U.S. advanced to the semifinals.

Despite the win, fatigue showed on the women's faces as they entered the locker room. Hamm let loose a half-mad scream. Then someone announced that the president of the United States, and his wife and daughter, had seen the match and wanted to congratulate the women on their hard-won victory. Normally, a meeting with the leader of the free world might occasion a moment of solemn celebration—but not for this team. The girls broke loose in a raucous chant of “Bi-ill Clin-ton! Bi-ill Clin-ton,” pounding their hands on the benches and high-fiving the commander in chief. At the very end of the night, in an exhausted group huddle, Hamm tried to help her teammates and friends focus their minds on the task ahead. “We have the same exact game in two days. So we enjoy it, but then we get right down to fucking business," she said. "When we walked out of that locker room, we weren’t sure what was going to happen. But to see you guys so positive out there, it made all the difference in the world. Well done. Let’s go.”

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After the nail-biter with Germany, the semifinal seemed almost a breeze—two strong goals against Brazil for a 2–0 victory. By then, 2.9 million homes were tuning in to ESPN’s broadcasts to watch the team blaze through its matches. Crowds thronged their practices, five deep along the sidelines, in a circuslike atmosphere. Yet going into the final against China, to be held in L.A., the U.S. was not favored to win—the team had already been defeated twice by the Chinese during the regular season. In those final moments before the noontime match on July 10, under a roasting California sun and before a crowd of 92,000 people (including the Clintons, back for another round), Foudy and the others tried to get in the zone. “I kept saying to myself, hold it together,” Foudy said. “You have a long game ahead.”

Foudy was right—it was “a battle for every ball” against the aggressive team from China. The Americans played great defense, but every time they got near their opponents’ goal, some clever defender would block their shot. Then, at a critical moment, Akers collided with Scurry in a scramble to deflect a ball, and an injured Michelle had to be taken off the field. Foudy huddled the team together. “We didn’t work this fucking hard to not finish this off,” she urged them, her voice ragged. “We finish this off. We beat them to every ball. They’re dead tired—remember that. We go after it.”

Their strategy held fast—the Chinese failed to get a goal, and the match went into overtime. And then, after a terrifyingly close save by Lilly after a Chinese ball soared past Scurry and almost landed into the American net, the match entered the penalty-kick phase. The coaches chose their lineup: Overbeck, Fawcett, and Lilly would shoot first. Then Hamm, who wasn’t stellar at penalty kicks in practice, but who was the team’s leading scorer. Then, in fifth place, Chastain—on one condition, that she take the kick with her weaker left foot, in order to fake out the goalie. (“I think I was too exhausted for it to compute,” Chastain later noted.) Overbeck slammed in her kick, as did Fawcett and Lilly. Meanwhile, down at the American goal, Scurry had refused to watch her teammate’s kicks, to keep her nerves in check. But when the third Chinese shooter came to the goal, a voice in Scurry’s head told her to look up—and she noticed that the woman appeared unconfident, almost scared. “I said out loud to myself, 'This is the one,'” Scurry remembered. She dove aggressively toward the ball, nicking it out of the goal with her fingers. The crowd went wild. Scurry let forth a roar, pounding her chest. Then it was Hamm’s turn for a penalty kick—an easy goal, smooth and strong. And then Chastain was up.

Chastain's teammates stretched out behind her on the field—some of them grimaced; some grinned; some shielded their eyes. Despite the pandemonium of 92,000 people rocking the stands and shouting for victory, the girls remember it being dead silent as they watched Brandi approach the ball. And then, with one swift kick of Chastain's left foot, the ball hit the net, and the stadium went wild. “I just went crazy,” Hamm later recalled. “You were so happy, relieved, excited.” Chastain fell to her knees, ripped her shirt off, and created her instantly viral sports-bra meme. Glitter filled the air of the Rose Bowl as the women collapsed on top of each other in joy.

The match that day remains the most watched soccer match in American history—and the legacy of the 99ers reaches far beyond that World Cup win. To a generation of young women who glued themselves to their TV sets to watch Hamm, Foudy, Chastain, and the rest work their magic on the field, being a soccer star was no longer a pipe dream. They paved the way for American powerhouses like Abby Wambach and Hope Solo, and women’s soccer continues to draw banner crowds for the Olympics and World Cup matches. Throughout everything they did, the ’99 women’s team made sure, as Hamm put it, that “all those young girls who were in the parking lots with our jerseys on, that whatever they wanted to do or dream or be, they could. That’s what was so empowering about the entire experience.” Or in Foudy’s words, “Our formula for success was simple—our team cared more about the ‘we’ than the ‘me.’” Her documentary recaptures that sensation and the magic of a group of girls who “unleashed the possible" for an entire nation.