(LR) Mia Hamm and Julie Fode celebrate during the Celebration Fan Tour final against Mexico on December 8, 2004 in Carson, California.
“We were always told no, you can’t do that,” Gebara explained. “You can’t exercise, you can’t wear those clothes, you can’t be athletic, and you can’t. We all grew up at this time where we were told no, no, no, no. We had to fight for everything we wanted.”
“My high school football team started the year before I went to high school, and there were very few college teams. If we wanted something, we had to achieve it. So, we had this burning desire that came from the ordeal we went through collectively” .
The USWNT won its first-ever World Cup title, defeating Norway 2-1 in the final. Michel Akers-Stal was awarded the Golden Boot for the most goals scored in the tournament (10), and Gabarra was awarded the Golden Ball as the best player.
1996 Olympic Games and 1999 FIFA Women’s World Cup
Five years later, women’s football made its debut at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. Although the final was not televised, USWNT put on a show, defeating China, 2-1. The Olympic gold medalist established the USWNT as a watch force.
When the 1999 FIFA Women’s World Cup began – again on home soil – the fans were ready.
Team members remember getting stuck in traffic as they make their way to the Giants Stadium in New Jersey for their opening game against Denmark. It suddenly became clear to them that the traffic jam was due to all the fans trying to get to the game. Nearly 79,000 people crowded the stadium that day – a record number for a women’s sporting event. Watch Team USA defeat Denmark, 3-0, with goals scored by Hamm, Fode and Lily.
Three weeks later, 90,185 people packed the Rose Bowl to watch the women’s final, USA vs China. The goalless match came to a penalty shootout, with Brandy Chastain putting the USWNT team on top, with a score of 5-4.
Fode said the 1999 World Cup set “the standard for what women’s sporting events should look like”.
Equally important, the USWNT set the standard for American women’s football going forward. And they became a model for women’s sports in general.
Impact on USWNT
Many of the women who became household names from the 1999 World Cup went on to play on the USWNT. Although Jabara retired from the national team in 1996, Hamm, Fode and Chastain retired in 2004. Lilly in 2010, etc. In the years that they have continued to play, they have inspired the next generation of young players, who are finding more and more opportunities to play.
When Hamm was inducted into the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Hall of Fame in June 2022, a few current members of the USWNT filmed a short video clip for him to display during the induction.
The first to speak was Becky Sauerbrunn, a 37-year-old defender who has competed in three World Cups and two Olympics, and ranked first for the women’s national under-16 team in 2000.
“I think I can speak for everyone when I say that you are a role model and an inspiration to all of us,” Sauerbrunn told Hamm.
“You’re also on every personal Rushmores mountain,” added Megan Rapinoe, who has carved a legacy of her own on the soccer wall of fame. “Literally none of us would be here without you.”
Rapinoe made the women’s national under-20 team in 2003 and the first national team in 2006. At the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup, she was awarded the Golden Boot and the Golden Ball, winning her second Olympic medal in 2020.
Sauerbrunn is the current USWNT captain and played in the 2022 Concacaf Final against Canada. Rapinoe – also 37 – was replaced by striker Mallory Pugh, 24, during the semi-finals and was included in the squad due to her winning mentality and experience. Ten players on the CONCACAF team are under the age of 26.
But new players don’t just learn from USWNT veterans. They are trying to preserve the legacy that the World Cup and Olympic gold-medal teams started in the 1990s.
“They created a legacy early on that just instilled that drive and that willingness to fight, and it’s just woven into the DNA of this team,” said 26-year-old midfielder Andy Sullivan ahead of the 2022 CONCACAF semi-final match against Costa Rica. Sullivan was playing in her first CONCACAF tournament on the senior national team.
“We realize we’re in the situation we’re in because of the foundation they’ve laid for us years and years and years ago,” Sullivan continued. “So we have a lot of weight on our shoulders that we want to honor, and then we also want to pass that on to the next generation. It’s a huge part of the values of this team and what we want to live with every day.”
Mia Hamm poses for a photo at the 2022 U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Hall of Fame red carpet event on June 24, 2022 in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
Impact on American football
The impact of the USWNT on girls’ and women’s football in this country almost goes without saying. The Women’s National Football League (NWSL) is now well established with 12 teams. At the NCAA level, there are 333 Division I women’s soccer teams in the United States—compared to the few that existed when Hamm, Fody and others were playing in the 1980s. And at the youth level, more than 3 million players are registered in the United States – an 89 percent increase from 1990.
“There are so many opportunities for young girls to play at different levels in different environments,” Fody commented on Hamm in her podcast. Both women had daughters and ran camps and programs for children.
What caused this growth?
Probably because USWNT made the sport look great. and acceptable. They helped show that girls can be as athletic as anything else they desire.
“Women are celebrated, and they are not seen differently now,” Gebara said.
“The game has evolved because a lot of people are playing now, the coaches are amazing and they have football backgrounds. They played the game, invested in it, studied it and had jobs in it. There was no such thing when I was growing up.”
Jbara, Fodi and Ham have daughters, and they have seen the growth of girls’ football and women’s sports in general in the 21st century.
“I have two daughters and they can play any sport they want,” Gebara said.
Impact on women’s sport
USWNT has inspired more than just soccer players.
Before USWNT flew to Mexico for the 2022 Concacaf W, 2018 Olympic alpine skier Alice Merryweather watched him play a “friendly” against Columbia in Utah in late June. It was shortly after the US Supreme Court overturned the Roe v. Wade decision, and the Meriwether case was launched. For years, she was particularly inspired by the way the USWNT has championed women’s rights: gender equality and pay inequality.
“It was very hard to see and watch them do what they are good at,” Meriwether said. “I left that game feeling strong.”
Meriwether, 25, grew up near Boston and was a fan of the Boston Breakers (originally part of the United Women’s Soccer League, now the NWSL team). Lily was the team’s founder, and Meriwether remembers watching Lily play her other champion, Mia Hamm, in a match in the early 2000s.
“I was a huge fan of them,” she said.
Alpine skiing was her main sport, but Meriwether also played soccer for her school and club teams, and looked forward to these champion sports.
“They imprinted the idea that women could be bad-ass athletes,” she said. “I saw them as strong athletes and strong sports personalities. They were my idols. I didn’t think of them any differently because they were women.”
Looking over 30 years ago, Gabara had no idea how she and the other women in the USWNT would influence a generation of female athletes. I simply considered it an honor to be part of the team.
“It is an honor to be a part of something bigger than you and to achieve success and to have the ability to fight for others who do not have the same platform,” Gabara said. “I’ve always been very grateful for this opportunity.”
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