As the U.S. women's soccer team bus rolled through the parking lot of Giants Stadium, thousands of fans took a break from their tailgating to point and stare. Inside the bus, Brandi Chastain was doing exactly the same thing.
"It was hard to know who were the animals in the zoo," Chastain said. "The crowd couldn't believe it was us and we couldn't believe that all those people were there for a women's soccer game."
The summer of 1999 was the summer of love for Chastain and her U.S. teammates, as a nation that didn't think it could care about soccer, let alone women's soccer, found a story to grab hold of in a remarkable group of athletes.
Ten years have passed since the first Women's World Cup was held on American soil, but for those who were involved, the memories burn as sharply as ever. From that first night at the Meadowlands, when 78,972 turned out to witness a 3-0 victory over Denmark, to the dramatic final at the Rose Bowl, this was America's team.
Despite being reigning Olympic and world champions, the USA had not achieved household-name status before the tournament. Yet the planning committee believed that the event could generate mass appeal and that the all-conquering U.S. team could emerge as superstars.
Within a couple of weeks, they were proved right.
"We had belief in the tournament from the beginning, even when not many people believed in us," said Marla Messing, the president and CEO of the Women's World Cup. "I felt strongly that once people saw what these women had to offer they would latch on and so they did. We were all part of history."
The host nation's opening game at the Meadowlands justified the decision to take the game to big American football stadiums around the country, instead of hosting it in a series of small venues along the east coast. Soon, the country was smitten with this team of friendly, tenacious, competitive, impeccably-behaved athletes from across the United States.
David Letterman was among the first to "latch on," christening the team "Babe City" and proclaiming himself to be the Mayor.
"We were very tight-knit in camp and enjoyed being in each other's company," midfield star Julie Foudy said. "We just got on with the business of preparing for games as normal so we weren't really thinking about what to expect. We had heard rumors of there being big crowds and a lot of attention, but we could never have dreamed of things turning out like they did."
Incumbent president Bill Clinton took in two matches, including the championship game, providing both the ultimate endorsement and a logistical nightmare for organizers at the same time.
"It was just the most incredible time," Chastain said. "Suddenly we had thousands of people turning up to watch our training sessions and the President in the stands for games. We had never seen anything like it and it was wonderful to have that kind of support."
The team responded to the public backing, sweeping through the group stage by winning all three matches, then fighting back from a 2-1 deficit to defeat Germany in the quarterfinals. A 2-0 triumph over a talented but erratic Brazil squad set up the remarkable events of the title game on July 10.
China had been the other outstanding team in the tournament and was in hot form, having thrashed Norway 5-0 in its semifinal victory. Millions of new fans who had never previously given soccer as much as an afterthought were suddenly debating whether the USA could deliver a dream finale.
Ninety minutes came and went in Pasadena, Calif. without a goal being scored, as the fortress-like defenses of the two best women's teams in the world canceled each other out. China piled on the pressure in extra time with Kristine Lilly forced to leap high to deflect a goal-bound effort that could have decided the title. The game went to a penalty shootout, just like the men's World Cup final at the same venue five years earlier.
Head coach Tony DiCicco had a critical decision to make when selecting his first five penalty takers. Under normal circumstances, Chastain would have been certain to take one, but she had missed in the Algarve Cup earlier that year and DiCicco wrestled over his choice.
"In the end, it came down to Brandi's character," DiCicco said. "I knew she had it within her to handle such an important kick."
Put at fifth in the USA order, everything boiled down to a defining moment in Chastain's career. After four successful American strikes and a brilliant save by Briana Scurry on China's third kick, Chastain stepped forward.
"I knew what was at stake," she said. "I knew what it meant if my kick went in, what it meant to the team and the fans and the country. But I tried to put it out of my mind and I was confident I could score."
With the American players holding hands, racked by nerves, Chastain avoided eye contact with Chinese goalkeeper Gao Hong, put her head down and ran at the ball before connecting perfectly and sending it into the bottom corner to clinch glory.
What happened next was joyous, spontaneous and one of the most iconic goal celebrations of all time.
Chastain dropped to her knees, ripped off her shirt and whirled it around her head for the few seconds it took for her colleagues to engulf her in celebration. Her actions, utterly unplanned, were a fitting expression of power and womanhood at the end of a tournament that gave a huge boost for women's sports.
The team that had captured America's hearts now had gold medals to match, and the afterglow was bright with countless television appearances and plenty of endorsement deals for the jubilant heroes to embrace. An early byproduct of the team's success was a professional women's league called the Women's United Soccer Association, but the WUSA floundered and folded in a heap of financial catastrophe after just three seasons.
Some members of the 1999 squad are still in the game. Chastain plays for FC Gold Pride of America's new women's league, Women's Professional Soccer. Foudy is a television soccer analyst. Mia Hamm is married to baseball star Nomar Garciaparra and the mother of two children, while Kristine Lilly is playing for the Boston Breakers.
The 1999 U.S. women's soccer team and its achievements sent a strong message of hope, teamwork and achievement, and its legacy lives on. The lasting memory of its magical moment – 10 years later – is proof.
- Brandi Chastain