The FIFA Women’s World Cup begins this week with the United States hoping for a record fourth world title.
The team is loaded with world-class talents such as forwards Alex Morgan and Tobin Heath and midfielder Julie Ertz. And I should also mention star veterans such as Carli Lloyd, Megan Rapinoe and Becky Sauerbrunn.
The U.S. women’s soccer team, however, was not always such a world-beater. The first U.S. women’s national team was organized in 1985. In their first international tournament, the U.S. women played in hand-me-down uniforms from a men’s team. The team lost three matches and tied one. In fact, the U.S. women played in four international tournaments during the late 1980s and didn’t win any of them.
That changed in 1991 when FIFA, the organization that runs international soccer, finally got around to organizing a Women’s World Cup. (FIFA had not organized the women’s tournaments in the 1980s.) However, FIFA did not call the 1991 tournament a World Cup. FIFA called it the “First World Championship for Women’s Football for the M&M’s Cup.”
Whatever they called it, the U.S. women’s soccer team won the 12-team tournament, beating Norway in the final, 2-1, on two goals by Michelle Akers.
FIFA may have been slow to begin a women’s World Cup (the first men’s World Cup was in 1930) because much of the world was slow to embrace the women’s game.
It’s hard to believe when you watch the end-to-end action in today’s women’s matches, but many countries did not allow women to play the beautiful game. Even soccer-crazy countries such as the United Kingdom (England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales), Brazil, France and Germany banned women’s soccer for long periods between the 1920s and 1970s.
Things were better for female athletes in the United States, mostly because of Title IX (Title 9) of the Education Amendments law. That’s the law passed in 1972 that requires schools that receive money from the federal government to give their female students opportunities equal to those of their fellow male students. Those equal opportunities include sports.
The law had a huge effect on women’s soccer. In 1974, just after the passage of Title IX, only about 100,000 girls were registered to play soccer. Now millions of girls play the game. And thousands of women receive college scholarships to play.
Some of those millions of girls grew up to be the Michelles, Mias and Megans who have made the U.S. women’s team a soccer powerhouse and the team to beat in the 2019 World Cup.