FIFA Women's World Cup
Lilly: USA’s 99ers created societal change
18 Mar 2019
- USA Legend says people still talk about 99ers because they changed attitudes
- Players had responsibility to promote team off the field, as well as win on it
- Lilly: "We became like the Beatles for a short time"
When USA hosted the FIFA Women’s World Cup for the first time in 1999, Kristine Lilly and her team-mates had no idea what the response would be like from the US public.
Three years earlier, her team had won gold at a home Olympics when women’s football featured for the very first time at the Atlanta Games in 1996.
But with no professional league to continue that momentum, 1999 brought an element of uncertainty, which resulted in US Soccer having to decide how big they wanted to go in terms of their choice of stadiums – go big, or play it safe.
The federation backed itself, and its team, which contained the likes of Lilly, Mia Hamm, and Michelle Akers, and they were right to. What they were met with was a public that clearly craved women’s soccer, selling out games across the country as they saw their players become household names.
“It was exciting for us, and probably the most stressful part was selling out those big stadiums,” said Lilly. "But we were selling out the games we were involved in and became household names. We became like the Beatles for a short time.”
But it wasn’t easy for the team, who didn’t just have to focus on their commitments on the field, but also the promotion off it. There was no opportunity to send out a tweet, create an Instagram story or post on Facebook – this was 1999 and the internet was still in its infancy.
For that reason, the players had to put in a little more effort, and be a little clever. “We did little sneak attacks. We would go to soccer fields where teams were training and sneak up on them.
“I remember going to a soccer practice in Boston with Mia Hamm, and the team was like, ‘Oh my God’ when we snuck up on them. It gave us a chance to talk to them, we signed autographs – we wanted to connect with the fans.”
That connection would grow throughout the tournament, which was helped by the team winning games, and with some other major sports being out of season.
Lilly said that after their opening game win over Denmark at the stadium of the New York Giants, interest snowballed, and with that, attitudes started to change.
“Each game brought attention, and with not a lot of sport going on elsewhere, everyone saw we were winning and were like ‘oh, soccer, the women are winning, are you watching this?’ The summer changed people’s views on women’s sports, not just women’s football."
The well documented penalty shootout win over China in the final propelled Lilly and her teammates to a new level of fame. No longer were they being asked: ‘Who do you play for?’ Now it was: ‘When are you next playing?’
As we approach the 20th anniversary of that tournament, people still talk about ‘the 99ers,’ a name that has followed Lilly & Co for two decades. Given that the 2015 team is not known as 'the 15ers' or similar, so why does Lilly, a member of FIFA’s Legends Squad for this summer’s Women's World Cup, believe that people still think so fondly of that ground-breaking side?
“I think the reason for that is it wasn’t just about winning the World Cup, it was a societal change," she said. "We won at a time when soccer wasn’t that big, when people didn’t know who we were, and when women playing sport wasn’t widely recognised. Young girls resonated with us, 30-year-old women resonated with us – it was a cultural change.”
Lilly has two daughters - Sidney (ten) and Jordan (seven) - both of whom play the game through choice, and not through gentle nudging from their mother. But they have seen some footage of Lilly on the field.
They will be cheering on their favourite players Alex Morgan, Tobin Heath and Megan Rapinoe in France this summer, and Lilly concluded that if her daughters ever wanted to follow in her footsteps, she would absolutely encourage them to do so – not for the trophies you win, but for the people you meet.
“Those women I played with are still my best friends now," she said/ "They were strong women that were fun, compassionate and abled you to be you. Being in that environment is pretty powerful, and I would encourage anyone to want that.”