The final FIFA Women's World Cup of the century launched the beginning of a new era of success for women's football and was a milestone in the history of women's sports.
For three solid weeks, three hundred and twenty of the best female football players in the world gathered across the United States to stage an event of unprecedented proportions. The tournament was played in huge stadiums for the first time, and new heights were reached for attendance, media coverage and television audiences.
Spectator figures topped 660,000, the media numbered near 2,500. All 32 games were broadcast live on national television, and an estimated 40 million viewers in the U.S. alone watched the American hosts capture their second World Cup title, thrilling a nation and becoming the story of the year.
"This World Cup was a world-class, world-caliber, stand-alone event for women like none other," said Marla Messing, CEO of the U.S. organizing committee. "In a small way, we were all a part of history."
On 10 July 1999, a world women's sporting record attendance of 90,185 sun-baked fans, including former President Bill Clinton, squeezed into the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California, to witness the home side pull out a breathtaking 5:4 penalty kick victory over China in the finals.
"The whole country is caught up," said former President Clinton. "It's going to have a bigger impact than people ever realized, and it will have a far-reaching impact not only in the United States but also in other countries."
When U.S. defender Brandi Chastain blasted the team's fifth penalty kick past Chinese goalkeeper Gao Hong after 120 minutes, including 30 minutes of overtime, the American put a fitting exclamation point on a summer of football that had swept the nation off its feet. Chastain fell to her knees like Bjorn Borg after winning Wimbledon and whipped off her jersey in celebration, waving it above her head to the thundering crowd.
"Momentary insanity, nothing more, nothing less," Chastain said afterwards. "I wasn't thinking about anything. I thought 'My God, this is the greatest moment of my life on the soccer field."
Fighting their way into the final with five victories, which included a come-from-behind 3:2 victory over Germany in the quarterfinals and a nail-biting 2:0 victory over Brazil in the semifinals, the U.S. dominated the midfield play and controlled the possession, but was unable to break down a spirited Chinese defense.
China had entered the final with the tournament's most potent offense, outscoring their opponents 19-2, but a pressing American defense ("100-defense") prevented the China midfielders from giving quick support to their forwards. China nearly spoiled the American party in the golden-goal overtime. After taking just two shots on goal in the game's regulation 90 minutes, they fired three in the 30-minute extra time, including one that should have been decisive: defender Fan Yunjie drove a header off a corner kick from Liu Ying toward an open net -- a sure goal, it seemed - but U.S. midfielder Kristine Lilly jumped high to head a shot clear of the goal.
Xie Huilin and Qui Haiyan converted the first two penalty kicks for China, but on China's third shot, U.S. goalkeeper Briana Scurry dived left to block Liu Ying's kick. After Carla Overbeck, Joy Fawcett, Kristine Lilly and Mia Hamm converted for the Americans, Brandi Chastain slammed home the game-winning penalty kick goal. Ironically, it was the second time that a FIFA World Cup final at the Rose Bowl had ended on penalty kicks after a scoreless tie. In the 1994 men's final, Brazil beat Italy in the same manner.
Group B, labeled the "Group of Death" by the media and made up of top-seeded Germany, Italy, Brazil and Mexico, was arguably the toughest first-round draw of the World Cup.
Brazil, who had been eliminated at the preliminary group stage at the 1995 World Cup in Sweden but then beat Norway to win the 1996 Olympic bronze medal, was considered the most improved women's team in the world. The great Sissi didn't disappoint. She opened the tournament with a hat-trick against Mexico, and then scored both of the goals in a 2:0 victory over Italy that showed the South Americans were determined to establish themselves on the world scene. Brazil also proved Germany's undoing. Because of a 3:3 result in the head-to-head encounter, the German team, who had drawn 1:1 with Italy and beat Mexico 6:0, only managed to secure second place in Group B and were matched with the Americans in the quarterfinals.
In perhaps the most entertaining game of the tournament, Brazil underestimated the first African team in the history of the Women's World Cup to reach the quarterfinal stage, Nigeria, and their star player Mercy Akide. After leading Nigeria 3:0 at the half, it took a golden goal by Sissi to beat Nigeria in extra time (4:3), and advance Brazil to the semifinals.
Canada and Japan opened Group C competition with an evenly-balanced 1:1 draw, but then Canada suffered clear defeats against Norway (7:1) and Russia (4:1). Russia, who took part in their first Women's World Cup, had two late goals by Elena Fomina and Olga Karasseva against Canada to advance to the quarterfinal stage against China.
In Group D, Sweden got off to a dream start in the tournament with the second-fastest goal in World Cup history. They took the lead over China after just two minutes with an unassisted goal by midfielder Kristin Bengtsson. China, however, confirmed their status as one of the powerhouses of women's football, coming back to win 2:1. Following a 3:1 victory over Australia, Sweden encountered an African country for the first time against Ghana. But their 2:0 win was costly, as great defensive player Hanna Ljungberg sustained a serious injury and missed meeting Norway in the quarterfinal stage.
In their quarterfinal match against Norway, the Swedes were only allowed a few chances at goal despite having most of the possession. Norway's Ann Kristin Aarønes won an aerial duel with Swedish goalkeeper Ulrika Karlsson and the Norwegian domination led to a 3:1 win. Sweden managed an invaluable consolation goal in injury time (91st minute), however, which allowed them to qualify for the Olympic Games at the expense of Russia.
In their first appearance at an important international tournament, Ghana's Black Queen's impressed with a fighting spirit, opening with a draw against Australia (1:1). However, three days later, the Ghanian defense was torn apart by China's Sun Wen (3 goals) and Zhang Ouying (2 goals) in a 7:0 defeat, and they finished with one point in Group D after a 2:0 loss to Sweden.
Defending champion Norway brought a strong veteran contingent into the 1999 tournament, including1995 MVP Hege Riise, goalkeeper Bente Nordby, defenders Anne Nymark Andersen, Linda Medalen, and forward Ann Kristin Aarønes). After a 2:1 opening win over Russia, the Scandinavians capitalized on their many scoring opportunities while routing Canada, 7:1
After soundly defeating Japan (4:0) and Sweden (3:1), Norway finished out of medal contention as Brazil took third place in the World Cup, winning 5:4 on penalty kicks in the first goalless draw in the history of the World Cup. The Brazilians held their nerve in the penalty shoot-out (the final was to take place just a short time later, so no extra time was played) and won the shootout without the help of stars Pretinha and Sissi. Pretinha shot over the net on Brazil's first try, and Sissi didn't even shoot. That left it up to Formiga and the Brazilian midfielder sent a low shot into the right side of the net. The Brazilians sped toward her and goalkeeper Maravilha, burying both of them in a pile of celebration.
The big disappointment of the tournament was Denmark, who having qualified in a convincing manner from the European group, went home without a single point. The same fate was shared by Mexico, who learned some hard lessons at their first World Cup appearance. North Korea arrived as the unknown to observers of the international women's football scene. Nevertheless, they came up with a surprise 3:1 win against Denmark, and credible losses against the U.S. (0:3) and Nigeria (1:2).
The best eight teams in the tournament qualified for the 2000 Olympic Games, and after host country Australia finished 11th in the tournament (an opening draw with Ghana, 1:1 and two losses to both Sweden and China,1:3), the best seven teams in the quarterfinals were set to go to Sydney.