What If the 1999 U.S. women’s national soccer team had lost the Women’s World Cup?

Big Wins Haven’t Brought Big Audiences to Women’s Soccer

Big Wins Haven’t Brought Big Audiences to Women’s Soccer

Exploring the greatest what ifs in sports history.
June 5 2018 8:00 AM

What if the Greatest Women’s Sports Victory Never Happened?

In 1999, the U.S. scored a stunning win over China in the Women’s World Cup. Nearly 20 years later, female athletes are still fighting for recognition and equality.

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Brandi Chastain of the US shouts after falling on her knees after she scored the last goal in a shoot-out in the finals of the Women's World Cup with China at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California 10 July 1999. The US won 5-4 on penalties.

Photos by HECTOR MATA/AFP/Getty Images, ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP/Getty Images.

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It’s July 10, 1999. In a stunning turn of events, China wins the Women’s World Cup 5–4 in a penalty shootout. The Americans’ loss makes headlines around the world, and a photo of Brandi Chastain crumpled on her knees, hiding the tears on her face with her jersey, becomes one of the most iconic images in sports history.

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It’s official: The U.S. Women’s National Team has lost the World Cup. The game drew the largest American audience to ever watch a soccer match—men or women’s. After weeks of intense media interest this was supposed to be an opportunity to prove that a women’s sport could capture the imagination of the American public.

Now that dream has been quashed. It’s easy to imagine the trail of disappointment that would be left in its wake: a struggling women’s professional soccer league, little coverage on ESPN, and a massive gender pay gap.

It’s easy to imagine because that’s what happened … when the U.S. won the 1999 Women’s World Cup.

Of course, Chastain nailed the penalty kick against China propelling the U.S. to victory in the 1999 Women’s World Cup. She ripped off her shirt, whirled it around, and slid on her knees in joy. In 2014, Sports Illustrated readers voted that cover image of Chastain as the second-most iconic in the publication’s history.

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The game really did draw the largest American audience to ever watch a soccer game. Unfortunately, its disappointing aftermath is also true. While the team became superstars and household names, two decades later, Americans have yet to broadly rally around women’s sports.

On the latest episode of Upon Further Review, journalist Louisa Thomas talks to Chastain and fellow teammate Julie Foudy. Together, they explore the mixed legacy of women’s soccer in the U.S. following the 1999 Women’s World Cup.

This episode is part of the new podcast miniseries from Slate’s Mike Pesca, based on his book of the same name, which examines some of the greatest sports “what-ifs” in sports history through a combination of speculative fiction, investigative journalism, and sound-rich narrative.

Get Episode 1 of Upon Further Review, “If Nixon Was Good at Football, History Might Be Different,” here. Get Episode 2, “How Actor Jesse Eisenberg Doomed the Phoenix Suns,” here. Get Episode 3, “What If The Dodgers Never Left Brooklyn?, here.

Podcast production by Nina Porzucki, Danielle Hewitt, and Derek John.