The first thing you need to know about the FIFA Women’s World Cup is that, when it debuted in 1991, it was not the FIFA Women’s World Cup. It was, and I am not remotely kidding here, the First FIFA World Championship for Women’s Football for the M & M’s Cup.

M & M’s, as in the candy. Mars, Inc. was a sponsor of the championship and, as FIFA was unwilling to allow the women’s competition to be called the World Cup lest it detract from the prestige of the men’s competition should it fail, there was no protest when it was decided to slap the name of their most popular candy onto an already cumbersome title.

That name was but a harbinger of things to come. Men’s matches were ninety minutes, but the women’s matches were cut off at eighty because, in spite of decades of evidence to the contrary, it was believed that women could not physically take a full ninety minutes of football effort. That first FIFA international competition was as bare bones as it could be. Watching it now, it’s amazing to see world class players shagging their own balls and being attended to by physicians who carried little more than water and good intentions.

But what is more amazing still is the spirit evident in even these first matches, a spirit that came to define women’s international competition – Get Up, Keep Playing, Damn the Theatrics. In an age of football players who increasingly crumpled to the grass in mock agony after the faintest hint of a brush from a rival player, these first national women’s teams marshaled on through collisions and injuries, knowing that the future of the sport rode on their shoulders.

The Half Century Ban

The pressure on that first generation of players was all the more keen for the example from the first golden era of women’s football. It’s easy to forget, but among the first widely popular organized football teams were women’s clubs formed in the late 1910s and early 1920s. Playing to crowds of tens of thousands while the men’s clubs were just scratching by, teams from Scotland and England made up of women brought together by their work in munitions factories played against each other to capacity crowds in organized cups held in 1917 and 1918, and an English squad even took the game onto the international stage by playing France in 1920.

women's football 1921
Image of the 1921 Dick, Kerr’s Ladies F.C., Wikipedia, public domain

In the late nineteen-teens, the future of football was female. In terms of public enthusiasm and organization, women’s football seemed on its way to take Europe by storm, when disaster struck. The Football Association, which ran football in England since 1863 and controlled access to all the facilities necessary for the running of an organized team, declared in 1921 that women were forbidden from using their fields. Women’s football was unseemly, they declared officially while unofficially jealousy over the greater public success of the women’s squads played its insidious role.  Other countries followed suit, and for half a century, until the ban was lifted in 1971, women’s football existed only here and there in the unsanctioned shadows.

Women’s Football Reborn, Take One

Over the course of the 1970s and 1980s, women’s teams across Europe, Asia, and the Americas began slowly coalescing. In 1970, the first international competition of the modern era took place at the Italian Coppa del Mondo which featured European teams and Mexico heading towards a final between Italy and Denmark that drew an audience of 40,000. In spite of the almost complete lack of interest from FIFA, women’s teams were finding audiences, and in 1971 Denmark, Italy, France, England, Argentina, and Mexico would descend upon Mexico for another international competition, which Denmark would also carry in a final before over a hundred thousand attendees.

The United States women’s team arrived on the international scene in 1985 when it joined the Mundialito, an annual competition that Italy had begun hosting in 1984. These were the rough and tumble years when there were no resources to maintain a national team, let alone a regular league, and players needed to take time off of their regular jobs to represent their country. Their very lack of resources, however, proved decisive in the formation of the uniquely United States approach to the game. Without a league to play in, the US coach Anson Dorrance had to more or less train players individually here and there as he could get them, meaning that instead of the patient squad tactics revolving around steady play buildup that defined most professional football, the American team was filled with gutsy, athletic super beings whom Dorrance placed in an offense-heavy 4-3-3 configuration that focused on quick responses to game flow and relentless attack.

US Women’s national team, 1985; via USWNT

The US came into the first World Cup, arranged by Ellen Wille as a test case to see if the notion of a Women’s World Cup was viable in the long term, as underdogs whose team didn’t even exist a decade ago. Facing down eleven other teams which had been gathering experience for twenty years, the US team burst into the competition with a fearlessness and energy that electrified the Chinese audience and proved the concept that televised Women’s football could be every bit as exciting and dramatic as the men’s game.  Michelle Akers, Mia Hamm, April Heinrichs, Kristine Lilly, and Karin Jennings combined to route traditional powerhouse Germany and defeat Norway to win the first title, the prestigious… M & M’s Cup.

Breaking the Four Year Cycle

Women’s football had proven itself to be a compelling draw worthy of international support, and every four years the world found itself caring intensely about this collection of ultra-talented athletes, only to promptly forget about them again in the long interim between cups. The United States tried and failed on multiple occasions to start a women’s soccer league that people would actually show up to watch, only hitting upon a stable formula at last with the National Women’s Soccer League in 2012 on the heels of the exciting US performance in the 2011 World Cup, and sustained by the team’s dynamic performance in 2015.

Meanwhile, the success of the World Cup inspired nations that had historically cared but little for women’s sports to begin recognizing and investing in the athletic talents of their girls and young women. Marta, the Brazilian phenomenon considered by many to be the greatest women’s player who there ever was, had to play in Sweden for years while waiting for Brazil to take its native women’s talent seriously before leading her country to some of the greatest moments in World Cup history throughout the 2000s. Japan’s record of gender parity is spotty at best, but when their team emerged to win the 2011 World Cup it brought together a nation that had just suffered one of the greatest national disasters of its, or any country’s, history. Jamaica, which appeared for the first time in 2019 on the World Cup stage, overcame official indifference to fund a team through various grants and outside sponsorships, and though not victorious, nobody watching their determined, high-energy approach to the game can deny that they are something of which their nation can be rightly and deeply proud. From Nigeria to Colombia, Cameroon to our own US of A, these teams serve as focal points of inspiration, sending a clear message to girls and boys the world over: forget what you have been told you are, and become who you were meant to be.

The magical moments provided by the eight Women’s World Cups over the last three decades defy enumeration, each a testament to the guts and talent of teams that, half a century ago, did not even exist. Carli Lloyd’s looping goal from midfield in 2015. Marta’s otherworldly, utterly insane, pass to herself across a defender to score against the USA in 2007. Michelle Akers, hero of 1991 and co-holder of the record for most goals in a single game with Alex Morgan, willing herself through chronic fatigue and shoulder injury to play two full halves against China in the 1999 final. Karin Jennings running rings around the German defense in the 1991 Semi-Final. Sam Kerr’s aerial heroics in the 2019 contest against Jamaica. German legend Birgit Prinz’s leaping karate goal of 2003.  Homare Sawa’s 2011 goal against the US that, no matter how many times I watch it, I’m still not entirely how, within the laws of physics as we currently understand them, it happened.

Individual moments of brilliance within a solid matrix of selfless teamwork that places the good of the squad before the nurturing of ego, this is what the women’s game has come to mean to the world, a light of women’s achievement accessible to all, and an example of what can happen when women stand together and demand the equal resources that their talent has earned, be it real grass on the field or equal pay in the bank. As sporting spectacle, as part of a larger movement towards global equality, as evidence of the human drive to self-perfection, the Women’s World Cup is, every four years, a sea of sanity and progress to return to and draw strength from.

Long may it reign.

Lead image:  Australia vs Italy, Women World Cup France 2019 Valenciennes, creative commons.

Dale is also the author of our very popular Women in Science series!