ThINQing Out Loud: World Cup: Women's crown jewel

A shirtless Brandi Chastain rejoiced after the U.S. World Cup victory in 1999.
A shirtless Brandi Chastain rejoiced after the U.S. World Cup victory in 1999. (MICHAEL CAULFIELD / Associated Press)
Posted: June 27, 2011

After the passage of Title IX, the 1999 Women's World Cup remains the most significant women's sporting event ever held in this country. As far as team sports go, what else is even close? Among all events, it's way up the list. I understand why Billie Jean King vs. Bobby Riggs deserves its place in the history books. But in terms of real impact, a soccer team filling stadiums and getting massive media attention - and winning, as the country stopped to watch - that had far more influence than a top women's player, already a worldwide star, beating an old man, great schemer that Riggs was.

A generation of athletes - including all the women now playing in college - grew up thinking it was no big deal that women filled those stadiums and got that massive media attention solely because of their athletic skill. Wissahickon High graduate Katie O'Donnell, a recent University of Maryland graduate and now a world-class field hockey player, mentions Mia Hamm when pressed for a role model. Not that O'Donnell grew up dreaming of being Mia, but Hamm and her teammates set a standard that O'Donnell is now living up to in another sport.

The 1999 U.S. team really was a team. It's kind of ironic that the lack of a domestic league for women actually benefited that group. They were not an all-star team, occasionally getting together before competitions. They all had established roles, on and off the field. It's possible that victory in 1999 wouldn't have happened if they had a league. (Everyone on that team knew how to do her job. Best illustration: Kristine Lilly staying on the goal line on a corner kick by China in the final. Lilly headed the potential Chinese game-winner away, setting up the heroics by Brandi Chastain later on.)

I covered that team, and every U.S. game in the '99 World Cup - and covered the decade-long run-up to '99 - getting a front-row seat for the whole phenomenon. Another irony: The soccer players overplayed their hand after the World Cup, believing that crowds would continue to come for a domestic league. The WUSA went through too much money too quickly and eventually folded because of it. The current Women's Professional Soccer League seems to have a better plan for long-term survival.

Now, Chastain and Julie Foudy and Hamm, and their '99 coach Tony DiCicco, are the TV commentators, offering real expertise. These women remain bigger names than the current team members. Their names still appear in Nike ads. But they earned that status on the field, as everybody watched. And the crowds in Germany this summer are another part of their legacy. After '99, other countries saw the possibilities. Many countries such as Germany and the Scandinavian nations already were advanced in giving women athletic opportunities. But '99 showed the commercial possibilities.

A strangely typical soccer scene

You can't blame U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard for getting upset at the postgame fiasco at Saturday's CONCACAF Gold Cup final. Mexico earned a 4-2 victory, coming from 2-0 down. Howard's complaint was that the postgame ceremony was entirely in Spanish, without even an English translation. What's the big deal? The game was at the Rose Bowl. Where else in the world would the host country be treated as a visitor? Howard had no gripe that fans of Mexico took over the Rose Bowl. He expected that. He just didn't expect it to be taken to an official level. Tune in to Bill O'Reilly for more coverage.

Questions . . .

With Jack McKeon and Davey Johnson back in manager uniforms, is it inevitable that Tommy Lasorda suits up again? . . . Did you tune in to watch a little golf Saturday after that 19-year-old amateur shot a 60 in Hartford on Friday? . . . Can ESPN have Ian Darke do the NBA and NFL as well as soccer? Maybe golf, too? (And any other sport Mike Tirico is involved in.)


Contact staff writer Mike Jensen at 215-854-4489 or mjensen@phillynews.com.

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