Carin Gabarra won the first-ever Women’s World Cup adidas Golden Ball award
The former USA star speaks to FIFA.com on the anniversary of inaugural final
"I’m proud to be a part of the USWNT legacy and to be associated with that team"
The term ‘pioneer’ perhaps gets thrown around liberally when talking about women’s football, but there is no doubt that Carin Gabarra can be safely placed in that category. The first-ever winner of the adidas Golden Ball in FIFA Women’s World Cup™ history, Gabarra (formerly Jennings) represents the beginning of a legacy. Known for her creativity on the ball, Gabarra was dazzling crowds with her skill well before Rose Lavelle was even born.
She has been on Air Force Two with Jill Biden and flown all over the world to witness the legacy she helped create: the US women’s national team. On the anniversary of the China PR 1991 final, FIFA.com caught up with Gabarra, who has been the head coach of the Navy women’s soccer program since 1993, to relive that historic tournament and to hear about the unique ways in which it has shaped her life.
Carin Gabarra: I don’t think anyone of us understood that. We went to China probably three or four times before the world championship, so we were accustomed to the travel and the culture and spending time over there. That helped tremendously. There was a big tournament there the year before and we did pretty well, not great, and all the European teams had European championships and they played more frequently than we did. We just didn’t have the same feel for a major tournament because we never did it. We were a bunch of kids coming together from high school and college all over the country. We didn’t know what to expect or what it was going to be like but we did feel confident in our abilities.
It was different because our families were able to go to this tournament. We had played together for three or four years and knew each other well, but we had never met each other’s families or anything and they had never watched us play live. We brought our cooks for the world championship, so we would have more comfortable food and eating habits. It’s difficult to stay healthy while travelling. We stayed in a five-star hotel, too, so you could see they put a lot of money, time and effort into it and it was going to be a great event put on by the Chinese. You need a perfect storm to win a world championship and for everything to line up. All those things played a huge part in our success.
It was exciting to have our families there and to get to spend some time with them. We had our own fans there, which we never had before. It’s still such an honour thinking about playing for your country. To put on the uniform and have the badge and represent your country is a big deal, but you have to understand back then there was no social media, internet, so it was just us and our families over there. I think almost every game was sold out, so there were tremendous crowds. Taking the bus to all the games was pretty exciting because you could see everyone flooding into the stadiums, thousands and thousands of people everywhere and it was such a big deal. It was different than anything we had done because you could tell it was a monumental event and it was something that had never happened there or for any of us.
Just the feeling afterwards. It’s still the world championship and you’re trying to understand what you actually just did. It was a great event and crowd. Norway were a huge opponent for us and we played them a lot and we had quite a big rivalry. As an opponent they were very good at taking us out of our game because they played such a different style and they were so good at it. They were very good at playing long balls and winning everything in the air and we played a short, high-pressure, tiki-taka style. We played six games in less than two weeks, so it was absurd. Everyone was exhausted, so it wasn’t necessarily the best soccer match, but it came down to the grit and the preparation and finding the ways to win. It was a great feeling afterwards.
It’s always been awesome. That’s the neat thing about the US women’s national team: once you’re a part, you’re always a part. Our alumni are extremely close, well informed and keep in touch. I’ve always felt a part of it, even when I retired. This most recent one was special because it would be hard to find another team that walks the walk. The teams they’re competing with are so good and so close, and it wasn’t a home event and they’re in European stadiums and finding ways to win against really good teams consistently – that’s a hard thing to do. Everyone has to stay injury-free and physically healthy. There are so many different variables. I’m proud to be a part of that legacy and to be associated with that team. They make a lot more money now and have more notoriety, but they are also critiqued on everything they do on their social media platforms. Everyone can say whatever they want about them, so that’s a whole different dynamic I didn’t have to deal with, so there are benefits but also hardships for how far the game has come.
I was at work at the Naval Academy sitting in my office and my cell phone rang and it said ‘unavailable’, so I knew it was someone who didn’t want me to know their number. It was former US Soccer President Sunil Gulati, and I was on the U.S. Soccer Technical Committee at the time, and he said, ‘Hey, do you want to come to the final?’ And I said, ‘Yeah.’ And he said, ‘Alright, I’ll send you some details. You’ll be on Air Force Two tomorrow.’ I got cleared very quickly because I’m actually FBI fingerprinted at the Naval Academy, so they didn’t need to do a lot of background stuff on me. We left out of DC and it was a bunch of people in different areas on that flight: Dr. Biden was on there, Chelsea Clinton and others from the State Department. What a trip! You could use your cell phone in the air, you had wide-screen movies, everyone slept the whole way. I was talking to all the Air Force people and the pilots asking about the plane. It was phenomenal. I was along for the ride.
One of the more meaningful moments from that came just before we went to the stadium for the final when Dr. Biden told me, ‘It is so odd that your entire demeanor has changed.’ And I said, ‘Of course it’s changed, we’ve got a game!’ They visibly saw the change in me because the game was super important to me, it’s a World Cup final. Unfortunately we lost the game, which was heartbreaking. We were in three or four limos in a motorcade and I was in the last one and we drove back to the hotel in Germany and it stopped and Dr. Biden got out of the front limo and walked back to me and said, ‘I need to ask your opinion.’ And I thought, ‘This is lovely. The Vice President of the United States’ wife is asking my opinion right now.’ She wanted to know if we should go visit the team or not because they lost and I said, ‘Of course you do. You’re the Vice President’s wife and you’re here for this.’ We went to the team’s hotel and waited and it was a somber, awful mood. Our teams don't like to lose. We all went in and Dr. Biden and Mrs. Clinton spoke with the team.
I just want us to continue to win. I want the women to continue to play at the level they are, to continue to be the best in the world and be able to have the finances and backing to compete at that level consistently and to be able to have professional careers – we never dreamed that would happen in my day. I want girls to follow their dreams, younger girls to play confidently and to feel like they’re accepted and that they’re athletes, not female athletes, and be able to compete and play at any level they choose.