When Akers and USA got the party started

  • USA pictured celebrating victory at the inaugural FIFA Women’s World Cup

  • Michelle Akers starred in China, scoring twice in final win over Norway

  • Akers spoke of pride at sparking the tournament's success story

USA are the FIFA Women’s World Cup™’s most successful nation. The tournament’s history is bookended by Stars & Stripes triumphs in 1991 and 2015, and they will start next year’s edition as favourites once again.

But while a long-established culture of embracing women’s football and encouraging females to play the game was seen to have given the Americans a significant head start, those pioneers of ’91 see things differently.

“Everyone thought we were born on top of a mountain,” said Anson Dorrance, their coach at that inaugural Women’s World Cup. “We were not born on that mountain. We climbed the mountain, we planted our flag on it, and we've defended it ever since.”

The US certainly hadn’t looked like champions-elect in the build-up to China 1991. They struggled badly in warm-up matches against both the hosts and Norway, losing twice to the latter on home soil.

Dorrance had also pinned his attacking hopes on converting Michelle Akers from her favoured midfield role to centre-forward. “I hated it,” she said of her new position. But Akers knuckled down and attempted to make the best of her new responsibilities by studying videos of the era’s star No9s, including Marco van Basten, Jurgen Klinsmann and Gary Lineker. “I just tried to do what I saw these guys doing,” she later reflected.

Whatever she did, it worked, and in spectacular style. Akers ended the competition as its top scorer with ten goals in six appearances, spearheading a deadly strike force dubbed “the triple-edged sword” by Chinese media.

By the time the final came around, even USA’s bogey team had little hope of stopping her. “We hated Norway. We always hated them,” Akers told Sports Illustrated. “They were good, they were tough, they were bitchy, they talked smack. I hated them, but it was fun. I loved hating them. It was great. For me, the more I hated them the harder I ended up playing.”

On song and highly motivated, Akers duly emerged as the match-winner, scoring a decisive brace that reflected the range of her attributes. The first was a towering header, thundered in off the post, while the second 12 minutes from the end saw her harry a defender into a mistake, chase down the loose ball and round the keeper before slotting home.

History had been made and, for Akers, everything that has since followed – including the glittering event that awaits in France next year – has followed from there. “If FIFA hadn’t decided to have an experimental World Cup, and it didn’t turn out as exciting as it was and as high level as it was, and the US didn’t win, the interest for women’s soccer just wouldn’t have been there,” she has said. “It was like we were too good to ignore.”

Did you know? There were two copies made of the original Women’s World Cup trophy. One of this identical pair was stolen from Norway in 1997 and never recovered, while the other is on display at the FIFA World Football Museum in Zurich.