You remember Brandi Chastain, euphoric in the Southern California sun. Sliding to her knees on the grass, biceps flexed, screaming in joy right along with the 90,000 people surrounding her in the Rose Bowl. The sports bra. The Sports Illustrated cover. The moment that will forever serve as a touchstone for women’s sports.
A moment that would not have happened if not for the groundwork laid three years earlier at Sanford Stadium in Athens, Georgia.
FIFA, the governing body for international soccer, awarded the 1999 Women’s World Cup to the United States on May 31, 1996. There were no other bidders for the event, the third of its kind. The previous edition had been held in 1995 in Sweden, with an average attendance of 4,316 fans at each match.
That number set the baseline for FIFA’s thinking on how the ‘99 tournament should be staged. FIFA officials told U.S. Soccer they wanted the event held entirely in the Eastern time zone, to cut down on travel costs, and the stadiums to be small — able to accommodate 5,000-10,000 fans. They did acquiesce to U.S. officials’ request to hold the final at Washington’s RFK Stadium, but that old 55,000-seat warhorse was the exception.
The other nine venues submitted as possible hosts in the official bid presented to FIFA in February 1996 included college football stadiums at Rutgers and the University of Richmond, Veterans Stadium in New Britain, Connecticut, and a series of smaller college venues: the University of Buffalo, Davidson College, the University of Delaware, Lehigh University, UNC-Greensboro, and Tufts University.
Considering what we know now about how the tournament ultimately played out, it’s mind-boggling to consider what might have been. Davidson. Lehigh. Tufts.
U.S. Soccer wasn’t quite ready to concede defeat, though, and it didn’t have to finalize its host cities until mid-1997. Federation president Alan Rothenberg maintained his belief that interest was high enough for the tournament to be held “on a grand scale,” as Jere Longman put it in his book, The Girls of Summer. Perhaps not on the level of the 1994 men’s World Cup, which had been held at NFL stadiums around the country, but bigger than this. And it was with those thoughts in mind that he shared some prescient words with a few soccer writers the day the ‘99 Cup was awarded.
All anyone in the soccer world was talking about that day was FIFA’s controversial decision to make bitter rivals Japan and South Korea co-hosts of the 2002 men’s World Cup — a first for the event. That story received far bigger play even in U.S. newspapers than the foregone conclusion of the ‘99 bid, but Rothenberg gave an interesting take to veteran soccer scribe Jerry Trecker of the Hartford Courant: “Although the news of 2002’s co-hosts will undoubtedly overshadow the Women’s World Cup announcement today,” he said, “I honestly believe that the 1999 tournament in America could have greater historical significance in the long term.”
Rothenberg surely knew there was no way that prediction could come true playing before crowds of 5,000. U.S. Soccer needed something to convince FIFA, which had long been content to put minimum effort into the women’s game, how shortsighted its approach was in an era when more girls than ever before were playing the sport — and might just be interested in paying to watch it, too.
In that quest, the 1996 Olympics turned out to be a stronger argument than anyone could have dreamed.
The United States women’s national team had existed for barely more than a decade, playing its first competitive matches in an August 1985 tournament in Italy, but the program was barely recognizable compared to what it is today.
For the next five years, the national team played a handful of games each summer, except for a five-game tournament in Taiwan in December 1987. It played only once in all of 1989, a scoreless draw with Poland in Italy in June. From 1985 through 1990, the Americans played a total of nine home games, all of them in the Twin Cities suburb of Blaine, Minnesota.
Things began to change in 1991, as the U.S. prepared to participate in the inaugural Women’s World Cup in China. That wasn’t actually the name of the tournament, as FIFA remained concerned about the women sullying its most hallowed brand. Instead, 12 nations would compete in the “1st FIFA World Championship for Women’s Football for the M&M’s Cup” over two weeks in November.
The Americans played a full slate of prep matches that year, including a pair of games each against Norway and China along the Eastern seaboard in late summer and early fall. That investment paid off, as the U.S. took home that first (and, thankfully, last) M&M’s Cup with a 2-1 victory over Norway. An announced crowd of 65,000 attended that final, a number heavily inflated by the Chinese government distributing free tickets to local residents in an effort to provide a proper backdrop for the event. (A tactic that would be repeated at some venues during the 2008 Beijing Olympics.)
However those fans got there, that total instantly became the benchmark — perhaps insurmountable — for the women’s game. Certainly, there was no threat of the U.S. drawing anything remotely approaching that kind of crowd at home.
Part of that damage was self-inflicted. On the heels of winning the first quadrennial international championship, U.S. Soccer scheduled exactly two matches for the women’s team in 1992. But the main obstacle remained cultural. American sports fans were accustomed to supporting individual female athletes — tennis stars during the Grand Slams, gymnasts and swimmers and figure skaters during the Olympics — but women’s team sports were not on the radar even 20 years after the introduction of Title IX.
That began to change as universities ramped up their women’s sports programs around this time. The SEC first sponsored women’s soccer in 1993, with only four schools participating. Georgia fielded its first Division I squad in 1995, when the league expanded to 11 teams.
The foundation was being laid, but the national team was hardly a marquee attraction. On February 4, 1996, the U.S. women reached a high-water mark for the program. A 2-1 loss to Norway in Jacksonville drew 8,975 fans, the most to ever watch a U.S. home game.
Five months later, the Americans would open the Olympics in Florida, and the cachet of those five rings would take them to new heights. More than 25,000 showed up at the Citrus Bowl for the opener against Denmark, followed by 28,000 two days later against Sweden. The final group-stage game against China at the Orange Bowl attracted 55,650 as part of a doubleheader with a Brazil-Nigeria men’s game.
Once the women arrived in Athens, though, they were on their own as a gate attraction.
There were two stories on the front page of the July 29, 1996, Athens Banner-Herald: a lead story recapping all of the Olympic soccer happenings in town, and a story at the bottom of the page chronicling the horrific traffic jams that had unfolded as thousands of fans streamed in from Atlanta to watch the previous evening’s women’s semifinal doubleheader.
The U.S.-based media covering the games couldn’t resist drawing comparisons to Sanford Stadium’s regular tenants, particularly as the venue began to fill for the U.S.-Norway nightcap. The final turnstile count of 64,196 broke a home record for the fourth consecutive game and fell just short of the all-time mark from China in 1991, a standard that surely would be broken in the gold-medal game after the Americans advanced with a 2-1 overtime win.
“The Norwegian players slumped on the ground while the American players celebrated first among themselves, and later by saluting their fans in the stands,” wrote George Vecsey in The New York Times. “This hallowed field, where Francis Asbury Tarkenton and Herschel Walker — and, yes, an all-America defensive end named Billy Payne — once played, had new heroes.
“The crowd was part of the soccer nation that is developing in front of all open eyes. The bumper stickers and T-shirts told of the inroads of soccer in Georgia Bulldog country: New England Revolution and Orlando World Cup 94 and Newberry Soccer. And there was one classic red-and-black AC Milan jersey with the legend ‘Baggio 18’ on the back, worn by a German youth.”
Vecsey would quote a U.S. player who had little public profile at the time, but we would come to know much better in years to come.
“I have a love affair with this crowd,” Brandi Chastain said. “They never stopped cheering. These were not some corporate people going to watch the Dream Team with Charles Barkley. These were real fans. This is the first time we’ve played in front of a crowd this big in this country. This is their team. They’ll be back.”
The U.S. women had played three games in the state of Georgia before that semifinal, all of them at Decatur High School. While the Olympic preliminaries had expanded their vision of what might be possible, they still had trouble processing it. “I can’t believe a women’s soccer game will fill this stadium,” U.S. captain Carla Overbeck told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram the day before the final.
As Bonnie DeSimone wrote in the Chicago Tribune, “After years of toiling in high school stadiums or seeing fans in large venues rolling around like marbles in a breadbasket, the turnout figures to be deeply satisfying.”
All the more so because those attending the gold-medal game will have paid real money to do so: tickets ranged from $53 to $133.
A huge, and invested, crowd clearly was in the offing for the championship game of the first Olympic women’s soccer tournament. The only question was whether anyone who wasn’t at Sanford that night would see it.
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Media reports that week hammered NBC for ignoring the emerging stars those huge in-stadium crowds and print reporters on the scene had fallen for. The 1996 Games were the last to be aired entirely on broadcast television, with no cable or online coverage, so airtime was finite. And NBC didn’t seem inclined to deviate from its formula of “up close and personal” featurettes and breathless coverage of the stations of the U.S. Olympic broadcasting cross: gymnastics, swimming, track and men’s basketball.
U.S. coach Tony DiCicco said after the semifinal that he was “sure there are a lot of Americans who are very, very disappointed that they are not seeing this on TV.” The San Jose Mercury News noted that not a single minute of live women’s soccer had yet been seen on U.S. televisions, and The Atlanta Constitution quoted a FIFA official calling NBC’s lack of coverage “ludicrous.”
In the Los Angeles Times, Mike Penner let loose with this missive in his gold-medal game preview: “While NBC’s cameras have been following every hop, skip and Yurchenko performed on the women’s gymnastics podium — they even devoted prime time to Dominique Moceanu and Kerri Strug dancing to ‘YMCA’ — the U.S. women’s soccer team has labored beneath the radar, despite a roster full of engaging personalities, a 3-0-1 record, a scintillating semifinal overtime victory over Norway and a real chance to win the first U.S. gold medal in Olympic soccer.”
With the buzz growing, NBC allowed that it planned to show live cut-ins of the final. Given the parameters in place, though, there was no way an extended chunk would get on the air. Also vying for eyeballs that night, and a vastly higher priority to the network: Michael Johnson running for gold in the 200 meters and the Dream Team taking on Australia.
So the full experience of what happened in the most anticipated women’s soccer game to date would be left to those inside Sanford Stadium the night of August 1.
To those accustomed to watching the action between the hedges, the scene was jarring. First and foremost, there were no hedges. They had been removed to accommodate the larger soccer pitch. But there was also the crowd itself, decked out mostly in red, white and blue instead of red and black, and composed of an entirely different demographic.
“No Olympic venue is more shocking to native eyes than this one,” wrote AJC columnist Tim Tucker.
Aesthetic differences aside, Tucker was quick to note one other variation from the norm that evening: “Unmitigated enthusiasm.”
Remember, those were less heady times for the usual tenants. Georgia hadn’t won more than six games since 1992, and Ray Goff had been fired after the previous season. As Olympic fever gripped Athens, Jim Donnan was preparing for his first preseason camp as coach of the Bulldogs. The atmosphere that night gave him something to shoot for.
Building on the excitement of the opening whistle, the U.S. got on the board early. Shannon MacMillan, whose overtime “golden goal” had secured the semifinal win, put home a rebound from a Mia Hamm shot to open the scoring in the 19th minute.
China would equalize in the 32nd minute, right about the time Michael Johnson obliterated the 200-meter world record with a time of 19.32 seconds. Even in the pre-smartphone days, enough fans in the stadium were aware of his triumph to break out into cheers that momentarily caused some confusion for those unaware.
At some point during the game, the official attendance figure came down from on high: 76,481. In the press box, they said it was the largest crowd ever to watch a women’s sporting event of any kind, anywhere in the world. That number instantly assumed a prominent place in the story being written by every correspondent on hand that night. The New York Times even put it in the headline of George Vecsey’s game story.
(Note that U.S. Soccer’s official media guide, and Wikipedia, list an attendance of 76,489. But 76,481 is the number that appears in every contemporary account, including the International Olympic Committee’s official report on the 1996 Olympics.)
It was history either way, but that number would ring a bit hollow without the proper finishing touch.
With the score tied, tensions remained high into the second half. Then, in the 68th minute, Joy Fawcett fed Tiffeny Milbrett on the edge of the 6-yard box for the go-ahead goal. As Milbrett somersaulted in celebration, the stadium rocked, fans jumping up and down in joy. Once that excitement subsided, that low murmur remained during the agonizing wait for the minutes to tick by, growing increasingly louder as the clock stopped at 90:00 and the game entered injury time.
When the referee’s whistle finally blew, the crowd erupted once again, cheering their heroes as they mobbed each other in the center circle, then set out around the stadium in a ragged procession, waving American flags as they saluted the fans who had given them an experience beyond their wildest expectations.
“Listen to them,” Mia Hamm told reporters in a tunnel beneath the stadium. “I mean, listen to this crowd. This … this is perfect.”
Added Kristine Lilly: “I didn’t want to leave the field. I just wanted to stay there and take it all in.”
In his column for the next day’s Washington Post, Michael Wilbon wrote of his press box neighbor Joan Ryan’s response to the scene: “It was an emotional moment few, if any, men could fully comprehend.”
Ryan’s own column in the San Francisco Chronicle was an unabashed tribute to everyone who had made that evening possible, players and fans alike:
“This was historic not only because it was the first Olympic gold in women’s soccer,” she wrote. “It was historic in a way that made women like me, who have watched the frustratingly slow emergence of women’s team sports over the years, come almost to tears. I wasn’t sure I’d see the day when 75,000 people would pay real money solely to watch women play a game. There was no halftime show. No concert afterward. These people had shown up for the game and the game alone.”
In April 1997, U.S. Soccer invited 22 cities to submit bids to host the 1999 Women’s World Cup. The list looked nothing like the 10 proposed venues submitted to FIFA the previous spring. It ranged from coast to coast, Foxborough to Pasadena, and consisted almost entirely of the NFL and major college football stadiums that had been anathema to FIFA only a year earlier.
Nearly every news report on the venue selection process, which ran through November, mentioned the impact of the 1996 Games on those plans. Marla Messing, the president and CEO of the ‘99 World Cup, was in Athens that night, pregnant with her first daughter.
“I was astounded, not just by the number of people, but the fact that they were knowledgeable people who knew what the game of soccer was all about,” Messing told the Chicago Tribune in a 1999 interview. “They cheered at the right time, they booed at the right time. The makeup of the audience and the numbers convinced us that this had potential. Everyone’s eyes opened up.”
So it was that on June 19, 1999, the United States opened World Cup play against Denmark not in Buffalo, New Britain or Richmond, but in the Meadowlands, at Giants Stadium. A crowd of 78,972 women, men, girls and boys exulted in a 3-0 U.S. victory, breaking the all-time attendance record set nearly three years earlier on a humid Thursday night in Athens.