This story appears in the June 3-10, 2019, issue of Sports Illustrated. For more great storytelling and in-depth analysis, subscribe to the magazine—and get up to 94% off the cover price. Click here for more.
How do you start a national team? In the case of the U.S. women’s soccer team, it began with a letter sent to 17 players in 1985. The U.S. Soccer Federation had been invited to send a squad to an international women’s tournament in Italy known as the Mundialito (the “little World Cup,” even though it had nothing to do with FIFA, which wouldn’t stage an official Women’s World Cup for years). Michelle Akers, a hard-ass midfielder who’d played collegiately at Central Florida, was one of the 17 who received the letter asking her to attend a three-day training camp on Long Island with the chance to go to Italy.
“At first I had no idea what the national team was,” Akers says, “but I said yes right away because I was going to be playing soccer somewhere with a lot of people and thought it would be great fun.”
Thanks to Title IX, the landmark 1972 legislation that created equal university scholarship opportunities for women, soccer programs had sprung up on campuses around the country. But a U.S. national team for women? That was new in ’85. Mike Ryan, a gruff college coach who lived in the Seattle area, was the first U.S. women’s manager. Born in Ireland, he knew the significance of representing one’s country in the world’s most popular sport, and during his team’s initial training sessions at Long Island University’s Post campus—which took place right next to a cheerleading camp—he quickly grew frustrated by his players’ lack of seriousness. Finally, he stopped practice and issued an unusual demand. “He made us stand there,” Akers says, “and sing the national anthem.” And so they did.
Everything about the USWNT’s first tournament was unusual. For example: the uniforms. They were hand-me-downs made for men, not women. On the night before the team left for Italy, players and staff members stayed up late doing emergency cutting and sewing to make them wearable. And when the U.S. took the field? They played four games against vastly more experienced teams like Denmark, Italy and England. The results: three losses, one tie, zero wins.
The Americans were naive in the international game, and their opponents took advantage of it.
“It was like they were playing against little kids in a way,” Akers says now, “because we were like, ‘Wait a minute. That’s so unfair. You’re grabbing my shirt or grabbing my crotch,’ or, ‘You’re kicking me,’ or, ‘You just fouled the crap out of me,’ and the referees just kept saying, ‘Play on.’ We got our asses kicked.”
There’s a misconception—even in the American soccer community—that the U.S. had a head start on the rest of the world in the women’s game and dominated as a result. But that’s not really true. The USWNT played in four international tournaments in the late 1980s and didn’t win any of them. But Title IX did have a major impact on the U.S.’s rise. As Caitlin Murray, the author of a book called The National Team, notes, in ’74, right after Title IX was passed, there were around 100,000 girls registered to play soccer with the U.S. Youth Soccer Association. Today that number is in the millions, not least because so much scholarship money is available to female athletes.
Title IX also changed cultural attitudes toward women playing sports, but it was a slow process in some areas. When national team forward Carin Jennings (later Gabarra) competed in high school soccer in California in the early 1980s, she had to deal with a societal stigma.
“It was not accepted to be a female athlete at all,” she says. “And every day I’d go to school, someone would ask me about sports, and I’d say, ‘Oh, I don’t play sports.’ I denied it all the way through high school, because it wasn’t the cool thing to do.”
Women’s sports may not have been fashionable everywhere, but Jennings had still been playing soccer most of her life, which meant that by the mid-1980s she and women like her were part of a rapidly growing U.S. talent pool. But beyond college there had been no women’s national team program to hone that talent. Now, finally, there was.
Listen to Throwback: The Story of the First Women's World Cup
How do you start a Women’s World Cup? First, a quick history lesson. Women have been playing soccer since at least the 19th century. Jean Williams, the author of several books on the subject, points out that an 1869 issue of Harper’s Bazaar included an image of women playing. Matches between England and Scotland began in 1881, and much like the baseball games in A League of Their Own, there were women’s soccer games in England that drew more than 50,000 paying fans during and after World War I. But soon after, English soccer’s governing body, the Football Association, banned the women’s game, arguing that it was unsuitable for the participants and could possibly threaten their ability to bear children.
Similar bans on women’s soccer were also imposed by the all-male-led federations of Germany, Brazil and other countries. But by the late 1960s, as women’s-rights movements gained steam, unsanctioned teams were starting to spread, especially in Europe. With FIFA and its member nations staying out of women’s soccer, an unofficial world championship backed by the Italian beverage company Martini & Rossi took place in Italy in ’70 and again in Mexico in ’71. More than 100,000 people filled Estadio Azteca to see Denmark win its second straight title by beating the host country. National federations in England, France, Germany and elsewhere ended their bans in the early ’70s, which brought about official recognition from FIFA. But that actually made things worse. For two decades after the first official international women’s game in ’71, FIFA couldn’t be bothered to organize a women’s world championship.
By 1986, a Norwegian federation member named Ellen Wille had seen enough. So at the FIFA Congress in Mexico City she addressed the nearly 100% male gathering. Wille says she was nervous. The only other women were translators. And that’s the way it had always been. “It was the first time a woman spoke at a FIFA Congress,” Wille says.
The men Wille was addressing weren’t exactly known as feminists. The FIFA president was João Havelange, a Brazilian who’d been in charge since 1974 but had never pushed for a women’s global tournament. His right-hand man, FIFA’s secretary general, was a middle-aged Swiss man named Sepp Blatter—the same Blatter who would go on to be FIFA president from ’98 until 2015, when he resigned in the wake of a U.S. investigation into global corruption that would produce dozens of indictments and convictions of officials across seven countries. Blatter is now 83, and when he was growing up in Switzerland, the idea of women’s soccer was foreign to him.
“Football was the macho game, and it was definitely not a game for girls,” he says now.
Blatter had plenty of cringe-inducing moments over the years speaking about the women’s game. As FIFA president in 2004, he said in an interview that women’s players should wear “tighter shorts” to increase their appeal. When asked if he regrets that statement today, he says, “No. I said they should be feminine, but then the good people from the press, they said I said they should be sexy. I would never say that. The future is feminine. So please look like a woman. Easy.”
And yet Blatter, as crazy as it sounds, is one of the most important figures in the history of women’s soccer. He’s also one of its biggest disappointments. Which is to say: It’s complicated. At the 1986 FIFA Congress, when the president opened up the floor for questions and comments, Wille stepped to the microphone and made herself heard. She spent 10 minutes addressing the room, saying that FIFA needed to organize a Women’s World Cup. Havelange’s response, rather than answering her directly, was to refer the issue to his top deputy. So all eyes turned to Blatter.
“First of all, I was a little surprised by the reaction of the president,” Blatter says. “This was the moment when I had been challenged by a lady for women’s football. But then I was a very happy man, because I said, ‘O.K., madame, I will accept the challenge. You will see. We will go for the organization of a Women’s World Cup.’”
Without Wille, who knows how long it would have taken FIFA to act? But it was a reckoning that came far later in soccer than in other sports. Women’s volleyball and women’s basketball, for instance, had official world championships in the early 1950s. Why did it take FIFA 20 years after the first official women’s soccer game to organize a World Cup?
“Because FIFA was sleeping, that’s all,” Blatter says. “Let’s say you can blame me because I was technical director of FIFA [in the ’70s], but I had other problems.”
But even the first Women’s World Cup was complicated. For starters, FIFA didn’t use the term World Cup because it was concerned the event wouldn’t be a success. So the official name was the First World Championship For Women’s Football for the M&M’s Cup. The indignities didn’t end there. FIFA nearly decided to use a smaller ball before reconsidering. But the organizers did change one of the fundamental aspects of the sport, making games 80 minutes long instead of 90.
Says Blatter, “It was the impression at that time, from the physical point of view, that ladies maybe are not as much prepared as men, and could play only 40 minutes [per half].” Yet to save money, FIFA forced teams to play their group-stage games every other day. (Men’s teams at the 1990 World Cup had at least four days between games, as remains the standard today for both genders.)
Blatter takes pride in his role helping to create the Women’s World Cup and in the slogan he first used in 1995: The future of football is feminine. For her part, former USWNT captain Julie Foudy feels conflicted about his role in the women’s game. “He was such an easy target for us with the things he would say,” Foudy says. “Maybe behind the scenes he did more than we’ve given him credit for, but...”
For Foudy, beyond Blatter’s Mad Men–era comments, there was a deeper problem with FIFA. Under his 17-year presidency it didn’t invest in women’s soccer and grow the game the way it could have.
“How can you not turn to your people at FIFA and say, ‘We are totally missing this market. We are not tapping into it’?” Foudy says. “If you put millions of dollars into women’s soccer, you’re going to reap the rewards of that because it’s a totally untapped market, as we’re now seeing finally, which to me is inexcusable. If you’re Sepp Blatter, you wield the power.”
How do you build a powerhouse? The U.S. women’s national team went from embarrassing in 1985 to contenders to win the first Women’s World Cup in ’91. The transformation started in ’86 with the coaching hire of Anson Dorrance, who had led North Carolina to four of the first five women’s collegiate titles and took on the U.S. gig as a second job. When he was hired, his bosses told him the aim was just to be better than Canada. But by the ’86 Mundialito he had already surpassed that goal.
“All of the sudden we discovered we could probably compete with a lot of these European teams,” Dorrance says. “Now, were we overwhelming and dominant? Well, not really, but we were certainly competitive.”
A year after getting zero wins in four games at the first Mundialito, the U.S. team under Dorrance beat China, Brazil and Japan to make it to the final, where the Americans fell 1–0 to host Italy. Dorrance brought a tougher mentality, an obsession with fitness and a high-pressing style that he had used at Carolina. And perhaps most important, he tapped into the Title IX talent pool. It started with a fearsome front three led by his captain, the freakishly competitive April Heinrichs, who had played for him at UNC. More than any other player, Heinrichs was a culture changer. She made no apologies about doing everything possible to gain an advantage and just win, baby.
“She was like a shark with blood in the water,” Dorrance says. “One of the biggest adjustments for a woman coming into a competitive environment is she comes with a cultural expectation of genuflecting to everyone around her. And this was not Heinrichs. She competed from the first second of practice until the end.”
Says Heinrichs, “He really gave me permission to be me. He tells stories about how players would come into his office and say, ‘How are you going to manage April?’ And he jokes, ‘We’re going to clone her.’”
Also on Dorrance’s front line was a towering figure with a flowing mane of hair: Akers. She was one of only two players from the 1985 debacle whom Dorrance kept on the national team long-term.
“Akers set the bar,” Dorrance says. “She was a player without a weakness.”
Her U.S. teammate Shannon Higgins (now Higgins-Cirovski) recalls a collegiate game when her UNC team played against Akers’s Central Florida: “Michelle went up and headed a ball, and she basically came down with her teeth right on top of Lori Henry’s head and lost her two front teeth right in Lori’s head. She just kept playing the game.”
Early on, Dorrance added another force to his front three with Jennings. She was a pigeon-toed dribbling master who had starred at UC Santa Barbara.
“Jennings would basically run through teams,” says Foudy. “We called her Crazy Legs because she was like a Gumby, like her legs would turn in ways that you never knew they should go.”
Dorrance was also fearless when it came to giving chances to young players. In 1986 he got a call from a friend who said he needed to fly halfway across the country to see a special player.
“I said, ‘What’s her name?’” Dorrance recalls. “He says, ‘Mia Hamm.’ And I said, ‘How old is she?’ And he said, ‘She’s 14.’ I just started laughing on the phone and said, ‘John, you mean you want me to fly to Dallas, Texas, to look at a 14-year-old for the full national team?’ And he said, ‘Yes.’”
It’s a story that’s a classic in the annals of sports. Dorrance didn’t want to be told which player was Hamm. He wanted to see if he could pick her out on his own. “It took me three seconds,” he says, “because on the kickoff this short-haired brunette is shot out of a cannon, just like on a rocket ship. I could see her raw athleticism.”
A year later in the summer of 1987, an unusual set of circumstances meant Dorrance’s U.S. senior team played in the same tournament as the U.S. Under-19 team, which had Hamm, Foudy, Kristine Lilly, Joy Biefeld (later Fawcett) and Linda Hamilton. The teens held their own against the veterans.
“That gave me a reason to make the decision to completely revamp the U.S. senior national team,” Dorrance says. Out went several experienced players. In came the five youngsters, all of whom would end up being starters at the ’91 World Cup.
Dorrance’s national team was coming together. He had assembled most of its core, and the culture it was creating was unstoppable. The U.S. beat powerhouse Norway for the first time in 1987 and defeated West Germany in ’88. But progress wasn’t a straight line upward. In ’88, when FIFA organized a World Cup dress rehearsal in China, the U.S. tied Sweden and Czechoslovakia and went out in the quarterfinals to eventual champion Norway.
The travel and the competitions were special. Yet for the players it was a huge financial and personal sacrifice. U.S. Soccer didn’t give them any money other than a meager $10 a day while traveling. Jennings took a series of nine-to-five jobs that she had to quit whenever she left for a new trip. And Higgins, who was making just $7,000 a year as a collegiate assistant coach, would end up retiring from the sport at age 23 after the 1991 World Cup final to make ends meet.
In those days the women’s team would see U.S. Soccer’s boys’ youth national teams receiving better travel accommodations. And the federation rarely issued any gear that looked official. When Foudy finally did get something, she was not only grateful, but also thrilled.
“We had these windbreakers, and amazingly they happened to be the colors of the United States, because usually they were like white or purple or something random,” Foudy says. “And this one was a navy-blue windbreaker with red stripes on the sleeves, and it said USA on it. And they’re like, ‘You get to keep it.’ I was like, ‘What? I get to keep this!? Are you kidding me?’”
At the regional World Cup qualifying tournament in early 1991, the U.S. outscored its opponents 49–0, and by the time the Americans headed to China, their confidence was peaking. No player had a stronger mentality than Akers.
“It’s just like the sun was coming up tomorrow, the sky is blue and we would win,” she says. “It just was that simple.”
Yet there remained skeptics. Dorrance still remembers a column in Soccer America that said the U.S. team was headed for trouble.
“You know, if we had any thoughts of winning the World Cup, we should just lay them aside because this was different,” he says. “This was going to be something completely different than we would ever experience, and the American team was never going to be prepared for this event because our culture doesn’t understand how to win these events, and blah blah blah...”
The U.S. went on to win the first world championship by an American soccer team with a 2–1 victory in the final against Norway. Akers scored both goals, giving her 10 for the tournament. After FIFA determined that the event had been a success, it decided to stage the Women’s World Cup every four years thereafter—and it retroactively dubbed the 1991 edition a “World Cup.” The USWNT players would continue fighting for better treatment from U.S. Soccer in the years ahead, both before and after their cultural- breakthrough victory at the ’99 World Cup.
This March, the current U.S. women’s players filed a gender discrimination suit against U.S. Soccer, citing inequality with the men’s team on issues like pay and training conditions. Their battle wouldn’t be possible without their predecessors.
“Our fight was for ‘equitable,’ their fight is for ‘equal,’” says Foudy. “It’s the logical progression. Players around the world have to stand up to enact change, and unless they stand up, change isn’t happening.”