When the U.S. national soccer team won the inaugural Women's World Cup in 1991, there wasn't exactly a brass band waiting at the airport upon their return from China. In fact, as the players from that team were always happy to recount, no one was there. The guy running the floor buffer, maybe. That was about it.
It's a long way from there to here, with here being the brink of a third world championship for the United States if the women can navigate today's final against Japan in Frankfurt, Germany.
The current team has grown up in a world in which media attention and live coverage for women's soccer in events like the World Cup and the Olympics are taken for granted. The previous groups that built the team's legacy had a different frame of reference. The 1991 players were given a $10 per diem on the road and were happy to get it.
"The team I played for, we won two World Cups and an Olympics, and we got a good start for this team," former striker Michelle Akers said last week. "So, they're standing on our shoulders, and now they're continuing that legacy with, hopefully, another world championship."
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The first generation of the women's team really stretched from its inaugural game in 1985 to the crescendo of the 1999 World Cup win in the Rose Bowl before 90,000 fans, the largest crowd to attend a women's sporting event. Many players came and went during that time, but the core became a recognizable unit that went from total anonymity to being the best in the world.
Along the way, what the U.S. team did was drag women's soccer into the spotlight, with the real glare beginning during the Atlanta Olympics of 1996 and then going full wattage in 1999. The current team knows the history. The players want their own identity, but they lived the history, too, in front of their living room televisions.
"(This) generation is the changeover from that 1999 generation and that 1999 World Cup team," said forward Abby Wambach. "Nothing to take away from them, because what they did was special. What they did gave us the opportunities that we all have here, and even players from different countries, by putting women's soccer on the world map and the world stage."
What the forerunners also did, of course, was raise the price of poker, and the current team plays in a more difficult international environment than did its predecessors. When the 1991 team was headed toward the World Cup, it was made up of women who had been lucky enough to come along at just the right time. The Title IX legislation of the 1970s forced universities to find a way to offset the bloated number of men's scholarships handed out to its football programs. Women's soccer became the most common answer to that demand.
In 1970, there were 20 women's collegiate soccer teams in the United States. Then the explosion took place. (The number of programs crested 500 by 1995.) What the rest of the world didn't suspect in 1991 was that the incubation period for women's soccer in the United States was finished. The team was young — containing 19-year-old Mia Hamm, 20-year-old Kristine Lilly and Julie Foudy, and 23-year-old Joy Fawcett — but it had been culled from hundreds and hundreds of very good players and hardened for that moment.
There was no looking back afterward, and, by 1999, the rest of the world had to get into gear or get out of the way. The World Cup tournament expanded to a 16-team final that year, and when the next Cup is held, in 2015 in Canada, the final field will be 24 teams. The United States still won't be just another team, but it won't be one of the few nations putting real emphasis on developing a squad.
"I would say an awful lot of soccer associations are investing a lot more money in the women's game now than they did even a decade ago," Wambach said. "You can see the talent nowadays. More teams were capable of winning this World Cup than in the past.... There are no easy games anymore."
The United States team that plays for the championship today knows that very well. After a November loss to Mexico, the United States was in danger of not even qualifying for the World Cup final field. It had to beat Costa Rica in regional play, then survive a home-and-home elimination with Italy, which it did, with both matches ending in gut-knotting, 1-0 scores.
They can thank the generation of U.S. players who came before for making it so difficult, for putting the bar so high that other countries had to reach for it, too.
Some members of the different generations passed each other as they moved in opposite directions. Akers, a member of that first 1985 team, brought along Hamm and Lilly. Wambach, 31, would eventually become a professional teammate of Hamm's, and would be on the roster for the 2007 World Cup, during which Lilly made her fifth WWC appearance.
Those passings are finished now, and this is only the time for the new generation. It can make its own history today. If so, please take a moment to nod at the players from the past. They turned on the lights.
Akers still remembers the flight home in 1991 to JFK Airport in New York. She was seated next to an elderly lady who asked where Akers had been. "China," Akers said. "What were you doing in China?" the lady said. "Playing soccer," Akers said. "We just won the world championship."
"Oh," the lady said, smiling sweetly. "That's nice."