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.
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.
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.