- Norway stunned USA to win Olympic gold 20 years ago today
- A breathtaking final was decided by the golden goal rule
- US coach April Heinrichs paid a moving tribute
The ‘99ers were – perhaps still are – the most famous team in women’s football history, a constellation of Sirius stars who synchronised into the most glittering galaxy.
Briana Scurry, Brandi Chastain, Joy Fawcett, Kate Sobrero, Julie Foudy, Cindy Parlow, Kristine Lilly, Shannon MacMillan, Tiffeny Milbrett, Mia Hamm… the names alone would send shivers down opponents’ spines. Their glorious skills would then give them backbreaking 90-minute torture sessions. The Women’s Olympic Football Tournament was foreseen as a victory parade for the FIFA Women’s World Cup™ holders.
Norway’s hopes of retaining their global crown at USA 1999 had burst apart in a 5-0 defeat by a Sun Wen-spearheaded China PR. “There wasn’t much confidence in our team heading to the 2000 Olympics,” conceded their coach, Per-Mathias Hogmo.
USA had beaten Norway in the Atlanta 1996 semi-finals and in their opening match at Sydney 2000, 2-0 courtesy of goals from Milbrett and Hamm, but the Scandinavians rebounded to beat Nigeria 3-1 and Sun and the Chinese 2-1 and reach the semi-finals. They then edged Germany to make it to a final, in the words of their coach, “everybody expected Norway to lose”.
Any pipe-dreamer who didn’t had surely released themselves back into reality inside five minutes. Hamm got to the byline and cut it back to gift Milbrett one of the easiest of the 100-plus goals she scored for USA.
The Americans could have been four or five up within the first half-hour, but they exasperatingly found Norwegian goalkeeper Bente Nordby making stops she had no right to make.
Hogmo realised he had to act and made the unusual step of making a 34th-minute substitution, introducing Unni Lehn into his midfield. Not only did Norway begin to assert themselves, but on the stroke of half-time they punished their opponents.
Hege Riise, adidas Golden Ball winner at Sweden 1995, floated in a corner and Gro Espeseth dominantly won the header in crowded space and powered it into the net.
“It was a very good corner from Hege, so it was just for me to use my head to put it into the goal,” Espeseth said. “It was an unbelievable moment.”
The second half restarted the Nordby-versus-USA show. The 26-year-old made a phenomenal save from Hamm – “I just don’t know how she kept that out” said US coach April Heinrichs afterwards – and fine stops from Hamm again, Milbrett and Lilly. And when Nordby was somehow beaten, Goeril Kringen was there to hook the ball off the line to American disbelief.
Jaws dropped even deeper as the clock hit 77. A high, hanging cross was sent into the US area and Ragnhild Gulbrandsen courageously made it hers under pressure from Fawcett and the fist of Siri Mullinix to make it 2-1.
Norway defended infallibly thereafter. Sobrero said: “I saw 90 up there [on the scoreboard] and I thought, ‘Oh, my God, we just lost.'”
With 15 seconds of injury time remaining, however, Hamm produced a superb cross from the right, Milbrett executed a header from the heavens and Olympic gold would be decided by the golden goal rule.
Hogmo was unperturbed: “When the United States scored to make it 2-2, I told the girls, ‘This is our day. We will come back.’”
He was right. Twelve minutes into the determining section of an exhilarating final, the ball fell kindly to Dagny Mellgren, who stoked it home. Mission impossible was complete.
“It’s unbelievable,” said Espeseth. “The US team scored very early and I thought, ‘Oh, no, not again. Why should they win again and again and again?'”
“Maybe this is even better [than 1995],” said Riise. “At the World Cup we were always ahead in matches, but here we had to overcome so much.”
Hogmo added: “We’re still a young team, with a lot of inexperienced players. We have only five players left from the Atlanta Games. But if you work hard, sometimes you go all the way, and we did it this time.”
Perhaps the most moving post-match comment came from the losing coach in a show of sportsmanship.
"I'm 200 per cent in favour of the golden goal,” said Heinrichs. ”It's a simple way to bring a match to a conclusion.
“We have won games in this way in the past and it's a great way to earn victory. The Norwegians are worthy winners and I have great admiration for their long tradition in women's football."