The phrase "the future is feminine" will be familiar to those who follow FIFA's promotion and support of women's football, but anyone spending time in the United States this summer would have come to another conclusion: the present is also feminine.
If there was any scepticism that America can embrace football, or that women's football is a major sport, surely those doubts have now been shattered. The incredible success of USA 99 both on and off the field assured its status as a genuine social phenomenon, as well as a landmark in football history and in women's sports. The US team became national icons, and the competition's growing momentum knocked other sports off the front pages.
The success and popularity of the competition owes a great debt to many factors: the exciting performances and exemplary attitude of the players, the boundless enthusiasm of the fans, the tremendous coverage provided by the media, and the magnificent efforts of the organising committee.
But what about the football itself? USA 99 reinforced the notion that women play to win rather than to avoid losing. Up until the final day goals flowed as teams consistently sought to attack. The traditional powerhouses of the game all confirmed their reputations with some free-scoring displays, while the developing nations proved that despite enduring disparities, the general standard is improving.
On June 19th the competition began as it was destined to continue - a sunny day in Giants Stadium, a huge, noisy crowd and some dynamic football from the USA which proved too much for Denmark. The mutual appreciation between players and fans during and after the game hinted at what was to come - the nation was discovering a new set of idols. The US went on to fire in 13 goals in the group stage, conceding only one. While confirmed stars such as Mia Hamm initially grabbed the headlines, other lesser-known players emerged into the spotlight as not only outstanding athletes but also charismatic personalities in their own right.
The Americans' eternal rivals Norway and China also cruised through their groups. The physically powerful Norwegians had no problems imposing their game on their first round opponents and dominating Group C. Canada, Japan and Russia were all beaten by the world champions to set up a meeting with neighbours Sweden.
Meanwhile in Group D, China's opening win over Sweden gave them the momentum to outclass Ghana and secure first place with a comfortable win over Australia. The balance and all-round ability of their team identified China as a formidable challenger for the title, with captain Sun Wen in particular catching the eye.
Germany, however, encountered far more difficulties. A hesitant start against Italy yielded only a draw and left them struggling to qualify in first place ahead of the impressive Brazilians and thereby avoiding a probable encounter with the Americans in the quarter-finals. The crunch game between the methodical Germans and the flamboyant Brazilians proved to be a classic nail-biter. An injury time equaliser saw Brazil clinch a 3-3 draw which was enough to see them top the group.
The first quarter-final in San Jose saw China beat Russia 2-0 in one of the few sterile matches of the competition. The Norway - Sweden clash was a far more competitive affair, both teams adopting a direct and robust approach. Norway have generally had the upper hand in recent encounters and reinforced their current superiority, scoring three times before Sweden grabbed a last-minute goal to restore some pride and qualify them for Sydney 2000 along with the four quarter-final winners and Nigeria and Germany.
The following day in Washington saw high drama between the US and Germany. The 55 000 crowd, including President Bill Clinton, saw their team fall behind to an early Brandi Chastain own goal. However, the US struck back through Tiffeny Milbrett and after Bettina Wiegmann put Germany ahead again on the stroke of half-time, Chastain made amends by slamming home the equaliser. The ecstatic atmosphere was heightened when Joy Fawcett nodded in the winner.
The second game saw an extraordinary fight-back by Nigeria against Brazil. After dominating the first half with a three goal cushion, the South Americans allowed Nigeria to gather their inner resources to claw back three goals and take the game into extra time. Cruelly for the Africans, however, it was Brazil who scored the Golden Goal through their brilliant playmaker Sissi.
The semi-final line-up read USA, Brazil, Norway and China PR: representatives from four different continents, reflecting the spreading popularity and development of women's football around the world. The same four teams also reached the same stage at the Olympic Football Tournament three years earlier. On 4 July, history repeated itself. Exactly five years after the USA played Brazil at Stanford in the men's World Cup, the same two nations met again in the same stadium. The USA got off to the perfect start when Brazilian keeper Maravilha dropped a cross and Cindy Parlow headed in. However the Americans' play became patchy and the skillful Brazilians started to put Briana Scurry's athleticism and positional sense to the test. But the keeper stopped everything that came her way, and ten minutes before the final whistle, Mia Hamm won a penalty which was calmly converted by the inspirational Michelle Akers.
In Foxboro, China outplayed Norway in a performance that confirmed the opinion of many that the Chinese were the most accomplished team in the competition. Against a team that was quicker, better organised and more creative, the Norwegians stood no chance. In the end China ran out comfortable 5-0 winners. In the third place match in the Rose Bowl, after 90 goal-less minutes Brazil defeated Norway on penalty kicks. After 30 games without fewer than two goals, it was unfortunate that the final day should yield a scoreless draw.
The Final crowd of 90,185 on 10 July was the highest-ever attendance for a single women-only sporting event. Despite enthusiastic support, the Americans were unable to break down the resolute Chinese defence, and survived a scare when in extra time a goal-bound header was cleared off the line by Kristine Lilly. While the two teams largely cancelled each other out and chances were few, the match retained a tension and a competitive edge throughout. Keeper Briana Scurry had steadily identified herself as a key player, and her heroics clinched the championship. While captain Carla Overbeck, Fawcett, Lilly and Hamm all converted coolly for the USA, and Xie Huilin, Qiu Haiyan, Zhang Ouying and Sun Wen did likewise for the Chinese, the American keeper dived low to palm away Liu Ying's effort. It was up to full-back Brandi Chastain to seal victory with a thumping drive into the top corner, then whipping off her shirt to be submerged by ecstatic teammates.
The USA were world champions for the second time, but America's success went further still. A total of some 650,000 spectators attended the 1999 FIFA Women's World Cup, an incredible statistic that now makes even the most optimistic pre-competition prediction look conservative. But even this figure does not tell the full story. Matches featuring the home team averaged almost 69,000 fans, but it was the crowds that turned out to see non-USA games that proved the success of the competition. The vibrant and colourful atmosphere from coast to coast shattered the myth that America is indifferent to the game.
ABC Television's 13.3 rating for the Final was the highest-ever for football in the USA, and the nation's biggest TV audience for any sports event this summer. In purely footballing terms, although the gap between the elite and the rest was still in evidence, it was equally clear that the general standard had risen. Players were more tactically aware, more technically accomplished, more athletic and resilient. Teams such as Japan, Ghana and Mexico suffered heavy defeats but nevertheless showed determination and attacking spirit throughout. The referees - all women - also won high marks for their composure and awareness, showing that they could remain calm, focused and authoritative in high-pressure situations and in front of large crowds. They were certainly helped by the generally positive attitude of the players.
USA 99 reaffirmed that while women's football is played to the same laws with the same equipment as men's football, it is undeniably different, attractive and appealing to a broad cross section not only of the football community but of the general public as well. The women's game was taken to unprecedented heights of popularity and its performers elevated to ever more visible profiles. Many players emerged as media- and public-friendly personalities, easily recognisable stars who became instant idols and role-models for young players all over the country. A great tide of soccer fever swept the United States for three weeks, and those that were there may well have seen a little piece of history in the making.