On a hot, sunny, 100-degree day in Los Angeles 20 years ago, Brandi Chastain stepped up to the penalty spot with a chance to win it all.
The defender coolly buried the final kick in the 1999 Women’s World Cup final, turned, took off her jersey and celebrated with teammates after the American women won a penalty shootout in front of 90,000 fans to win the World Cup against a China team which had played the U.S. scoreless through regulation and extra time. The photo of Chastain celebrating in her black Nike sports bra graced the cover of Sports Illustrated and other publications that week, instantly becoming the iconic image that would define the group dubbed the ‘99ers.
That team served as an inspiration for the next crop of American girls coming up through the national team. Stars like Mia Hamm became well-known names.
With the U.S.’s 2-0 win yesterday against the Netherlands, the American women not only won its fourth World Cup title — or half of the quadrennial tournaments held since 1991 — but became one that thrived in the spotlight and also moved the cultural needle. It’s one thing to win a championship, but another all together to do it and become a team celebrated for both its athletic glory as its social impact.
As the defending champions from 2015, the Americans wore a larger target this summer as other countries increasingly fund and develop their women’s programs. Failing on the world’s largest stage would not only carry lost financial opportunities for the players, but could sway public opinion in the team’s ongoing legal battle against parent organization U.S. Soccer for equal pay among the men’s and women’s national teams.
The team kept winning anyway, setting up a highly anticipated quarterfinal game against host France in Paris. The week of that game, video from a January interview showed co-captain Megan Rapinoe saying she wouldn’t visit the White House, adding a four-letter expletive for good measure. Rapinoe is already a controversial figure in American sports, having supported former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick and took to kneeling during the national anthem before some club and national team games in 2016. (She stands for the anthem now, but does not sing.)
The comments prompted President Donald Trump to fire out three tweets saying, in part, Rapinoe should win before she talks.
And that’s what they did.
Against France, Rapinoe scored both goals in the 2-1 victory, striking a pose after the first and creating her own iconic photo moment. In the semifinals against England, star forward Alex Morgan celebrated her goal by mimicking the drinking of tea. The symbolism was not lost — the game was played on July 2.
Then in the final, it was 34-year-old Rapinoe in likely her last World Cup game putting the U.S. up first with a penalty kick before Rose Lavelle, one of the younger players at just 24, scored on a rocket shot to shut the door on the Dutch.
For a team with so many possible distractions, although many of them self-inflicted, the U.S. women never wilted under pressure. From the opponents, from injuries, from the president and from Americans back home hoping they would lose, the U.S. team kept moving forward toward its goal of repeating as world champions.
Rapinoe, with six goals, three assists and one head of purple-dyed hair, was awarded the Golden Ball and Golden Boot for the tournament’s top player and top scorer, respectively. Embrace her or vilify her — there really is no in-between, not that she seems to mind — Rapinoe talked the talk and then backed it up in the biggest way.
Off-the-field moments like this will carry this team’s lasting impact beyond any box score or goal celebration. Twenty years ago, the ‘99ers won it all and helped inspire the next generation of female athletes. This 2019 team is already doing that, but its impact in matters beyond soccer will be the reason it’s remembered.
(Pete Sirianni is the digital editor at The News. Email him at email@example.com.)