The goal Tobin Heath scored against Japan to conclude the FIFA Women's World Cup Canada 2015™ Final marked the 771st strike in the global showpiece since the inaugural event in China PR 25 years ago. Among all these goals scored across a total of 232 matches in seven editions, though, one remains unique - the opener notched by Ma Li in the tournament curtain-raiser between hosts China PR and Norway in the maiden Women's World Cup.
The date was 16 November 1991 and the Tianhe Stadium in Guangzhou was the place. The hosts were pitted against the Norwegians in a historic encounter - the opening game of the first Women's World Cup. Playing on home soil and spurred on by the home supporters, the Steel Roses proved dominant from the outset. And it took them just 22 minutes to break the deadlock, China’s Ma Li got herself ahead a series of defenders to head home what was the first FIFA Women's World Cup goal. The opener sent the home crowd into raptures and set China on the path to a memorable 4-0 victory. A quarter of a century has now elapsed, but the memory remains vivid for the goalscorer.
"I am proud of scoring the first Women’s World Cup goal," Ma, now a successful businesswoman living in Brazil, told FIFA.com. "But I wasn't aware of this when I scored. We were so tense in the opening game and I was totally focused on my play. It was from a set-piece from the right. Wu Weiying's free-kick was so fast that all I needed to do was fling myself and nod in-almost effortlessly.
"After I scored the opening goal, I was still tense. I had no time for celebration. I even couldn't hear the ovation from the fans. I was just thinking about one thing - the opponents would hit back hard as they were desperate to earn an equaliser. I must try my best to keep our back-line tight."
When I jumped to head a ball into the back of net, I felt it was just like jumping and shooting at the basket.
Today, fans may be forgiven for thinking it lucky to score the milestone goal. For Ma, though, it was all about training and technical plans, as she recalled. "For us, the goal was a testament to our hard work,” she explained. “Coach Shang (Ruihua) gave some extra work for the team's three tall players-me, Niu Lijie and Zhou Yang. So we were often asked to stay after a day's work and train in leaping and heading. Usually, I was asked to get close to the goalkeeper while the other two took care of follow-ups. So we three covered the entire area in our set-piece tactics."
What Ma fails to mention is her exceptional aerial ability skills honed as a former basketball star. In fact, she had won nearly all the local basketball competitions with her middle school team, before being persuaded to switch to playing football. A late starter in the game, she made fast progress and thrived in her defender's role.
"I was tall (171cm) and was good at leaping, so my coaches thought the defending position suited me. It didn't take me long to fit into the new game. When I jumped to head a ball into the back of net, I felt it was just like jumping and shooting at the basket," she added with a smile.
Michelle Akers rivalry
Inspired by the opening triumph, China PR excelled in the group stage drawing 2-2 against Denmark and routing New Zealand 4-1 to progress. However, an unexpected 1-0 loss to Sweden in the quarter-final brought the hosts' campaign to an abrupt end.
25 years later, the pain is still strongly felt by Ma."We began as arguably the favourites so it was heart-breaking to end our campaign in such fashion. We were so sad and we cried a lot. It remains a thorn deep in my heart still today. The pain of this loss is more poignant even than that brought about by failed love.
“In spite of this, the first Women's World Cup is a great memory to cherish. I miss the team-mates, the coaches. It was such a memorable period that we spent together in preparing for the event.”
As a result, Ma and team-mates had to watch from stands as Norway, whom they defeated in the opener, went all the way through and met USA in the final. Ma believes China PR were more than capable of sealing a place in the tournament’s ultimate game and, had they made it, they would have had been well placed to defeat the Americans and claim the maiden title.
"We thought that the Americans were perhaps the only team matching us in the tournament,” Ma said. “And we were not afraid of them. We had played a series of friendlies against them in the build-up and we showed we could deal with them."
As Ma revealed, she developed something of a personal rivalry with USA captain and star striker Michelle Akers, who scored twice as her side came from behind to beat Norway 2-1 and lifted the coveted silverware. "My job was to thwart her (Akers) in these friendlies," Ma said of the FIFA Female Player of the Century. "She was a tough player. Each time we met I was bruised all over after competing with her, and I guess she had the same. I think she was afraid of me (laugh). So who knows what would have happened had the two teams met in the final."