Hege Riise and Carli Lloyd know each other well, and they have plenty in common.
The pair worked together for several years when Riise formed part of Pia Sundhage’s USA coaching team, and a mutual esteem quickly formed. Lloyd lauded as “awesome” the Norwegian’s tactical and technical input, while Riise watched with admiration the blossoming of her former pupil on the game’s biggest stage.
“Carli has always worked hard and been a central player for the US, but she really stepped up as a leader at the World Cup,” Riise told FIFA.com “She grasped the responsibility to drive the team on and added an extra dimension to her game too, just with the quality of her passing and long-range shooting.”
Of course, this Norwegian legend knows better than most what it takes to inspire a team to FIFA Women's World Cup™ glory from an attacking midfield role. Indeed, beyond being linked by their shared time under Sundhage, and their position on the field, Riise and Lloyd form part of an exclusive, seven-strong club of Women’s World Cup Golden Ball winners.
Two decades separate the tournaments in which the duo dazzled, and much has changed during that time. The changes were almost exclusively for the better, too, with Riise thrilled to see today’s idolised, professional World Cup stars adorning the covers of magazines, video games and much more besides. And though she arrived too early to fully benefit from the global media coverage the tournament now receives, the 46-year-old is proud to have played a pioneering role in establishing the World Cup as a platform for excellence.
“We always felt having a World Cup would be a big step for women’s football, and that’s the way it has proved,” she said. “The start of it back in 1991 was huge for women’s football, and for women’s sport in general. It was a crucial step for taking things to another level and, for me, it’s wonderful to see the tournament as it is now, with the crowds and attention it had in Canada. I’m very glad to have played my part in its history.”
Riise, in fact, played a major role in three separate editions, and was part of the very first act: the Opening Match of that inaugural tournament in 1991. And while losing 4-0 to hosts China PR ensured a bruising debut, another aspect of the experience left her with only fond memories.
“I’ll remember that game for the rest of my life – not for the football, or the result, but for the spectators,” she said, reflecting on the fact that it was played out before a crowd of 65,000. “It was then I knew the Women’s World Cup could be something really special.”
One false impression did arise from that first game, however: that Norway would be World Cup also-rans. As it was, Even Pellerud’s team survived until the final day, just as they would in each of the two subsequent editions. They would also go on to follow up those showings by claiming Olympic gold. Yet it is not Sydney 2000 but Sweden 1995, when her team lifted the Women’s World Cup and she was named the tournament’s best player, that Riise remembers most fondly.
We were in the best shape of our careers, feeling pretty much unstoppable, by the time the World Cup came around.
“That was the best moment of my career without any doubt,” she said. “Winning the Olympics was wonderful, but the flow of the tournament wasn’t the same. That '95 World Cup was my best experience, and the Golden Ball is something I’m still really so proud of. I did feel like I had a fantastic tournament and I enjoyed every minute of being out there. I was in such good shape; I just felt like nothing could stop me out there.
“I think most of the team felt that way in ‘95. We had the same coach from ’91, most of the same players and we had developed a way of training – really intense – that meant we were in the best shape of our careers, feeling pretty much unstoppable, by the time the World Cup came around. We just came into that tournament riding a big wave of confidence.”
From the outset, it was clear that such confidence was fully justified. Drawn in a group with Canada, England and Nigeria, the Norwegians scored a remarkable 17 times without reply before sweeping aside Denmark in the last eight. Next to fall were USA, their conquerors in the ’91 Final, which set up a decider against Germany in which two goals in three first-half minutes – the first a brilliant solo effort from Riise – secured the trophy.
“Some moments you just can’t forget and that goal in the final is one for me,” she said, smiling. “But although we were so clearly on top, we always knew it was Germany, who never give up, so we didn’t relax until the final whistle. Then we really had a party. We even had two military planes flying alongside ours to give us a special escort back to Norway, where there was a big celebration at the airport.”
Such festivities would not be repeated four years later, when the US – now on home soil – again took centre stage. But as in ’91, the off-field scenes, and wider evidence of genuine progress, ensured that Riise was far from downcast.
“Just being in the US for that tournament was an incredible experience,” said Riise, whose team lost in the semi-finals to China. “We played the bronze-medal match against Brazil and, because the final took place directly after our game, the stadium was full with 90,000 people by the time we finished. As a player, it was just great fun. How can you not enjoy being part of something like that?”
The inevitable question, with Riise having established herself as a club coach in Norway – and worked with the national U-23 team – is whether she will again sample these inimitable World Cup delights, this time from the dugout.
“I definitely hope so,” came her candid response. “For now, I’m happy doing what I’m doing and I feel I’m improving all the time. But having enjoyed such great experiences at the World Cup on the field, I’d really love to go back to the tournament as a coach.”