Women’s football in the U.S. – from a niche sport to the world stage

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Bente Ovedie Skogvang
Inland Norway University of Applied Sciences


Rob Goldman
The Sisterhood: The 99ers and the Rise of U.S. Women’s Soccer
277 pages, hardcover, ill
Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press 2021
ISBN 978-1-4962-2883-3

The history of the 99ers and the rise of U.S. women’s soccer by Rob Goldman is covering a crucial part of women’s soccer/ football (association football = soccer) history. Goldman presents how an extraordinary group of women together with expert coaches, families and supporters built one of the most dominant women’s soccer teams in history. It is especially interesting for me to read this book, because of my research in national and international women’s football for decades. I am also writing the women’s football history in Norway, and USA played Norway in several matches during this period. The third reason is that I refereed many of the described matches of the U.S. Women Soccer national team during the 1990s and 2000s, among them the inaugural Olympic final in Atlanta 1996, when USA won their first Olympic gold medal.

The 280 pages book comes in three parts with thirty-five chapters, an epilogue, and in addition twenty-four pages of photos are presented in the middle of the book. The author informs us about how the rise of women’s football in U.S.A. was neither easy nor harmonious. Women’s soccer in the U.S.A. grew from a niche sport in the early 1990s, and the players at the national team experienced impressive successes on the field with four World Cup titles and four Olympic gold medals. At the same time, they started out with low income, few spectators in the stands, played at low-quality pitches, and they experienced discrimination and lack of equality in the treatment from their governing bodies, FIFA and U.S. Soccer Federation. A part of the story with huge influence for the development of women’s football in the world is written in one short chapter about what the author calls ‘the Queen of Women’s Soccer,’ the Norwegian Executive Board member Ellen Wille who in 1986 was the first woman ever to speak at a FIFA Congress. She criticised the shortcomings in FIFA’s annual report which was lacking women’s football, and she proposed a world championship for women and to integrate women’s soccer in the Olympic program as well as common rules for all the countries.

Even if Goldman does not dive deeply into sociological questions, the book is also about the society that created the national team, development of high-performance skills in a team-sport, and the sisterhood, bonding and conflicts within the team.

The stories of the most famous players are told through interesting details from their background on and off the field: i.e. Emily Pickering Harner, April Heinrichs, Michelle Akers, Mia Hamm, Carla Overbeck, Tiffany Millbrett, Kristine Lily (354 caps for USA), Julie Foudy, Brandi Chastain, as well as one of the first African American at the national team; Briana Scurry. The players, their football history, their path to the national team, and their performances at the national team are presented in-depth by the author, and both slogans, poems and internal humour are included. The first national team coaches are presented, among them the greatest college coach Anson Dorrance, called the father of women’s soccer in USA; Toni DiCicco, who was the head coach during most of the period described in the book, and April Heinrichs (former player and coach) who underlined the significance of team chemistry. Tony DiCicco surrounded the national team with the best people to increase their performance: the best nutritionists, the best physical and condition coaches, and the best psychologist. The Norwegian national team was hard to beat at that time, and therefore the U.S. team named them the ‘Viking Bitches’. After the loss against Norway in the World Cup final in Sweden in 1995, Colleen Hacker, an expert in peak performance and teambuilding, was hired. Together DiCicco and Hacker used video analysis, focussing on all individual players’ best performances, as a motivational tool before the 1996 Olympic and World Cup 1999 matches. Several of the presented photos from the two World Cups and the Olympic final in Atlanta 1996 are from ‘the Toni DiCicco Collection’.

One of the pioneers, Michelle Akers was dominating women’s soccer in the 1980s and 1990s, and she was the first American female soccer player to sign an endorsement contract as well as being named ‘FIFA Female Player of the Century’ in 2002. In the book she describes the first step in building a female national team in soccer as similar as ‘climbing Mt. Everest’ (p. 11). Experiences from enjoyment of beaches and nightlife in Italy, becoming fashion models, homesickness, food poisoning, facing the rough Italian/European playing style with shirt pulling and different refereeing styles, as well as some of the players not knowing what it meant to play for the national team. In addition to interviews with several players and coaches, Goldman uses selected bibliographies in presenting the stories, and he has collected huge insight in the history of the U.S. Women’s Soccer national team. In Atlanta 1996 and World Cup 1999, the matches are presented one by one, including the excitement and heavily increased numbers of spectators.

Nevertheless, some of the Western stereotypes about a team from the U.S.A., where women’s soccer was a middle class sport, when meeting the culture in Haiti, China or Taiwan is from the eyes of individualism and Western middle-class perspective: i.e. how Chinese food might have been made of cats and dogs, as well as peanut butter and rice saving the players diets in the early tournaments, before they came home to their own country in Atlanta Olympics in 1996 and the U.S.A. World Cup in 1999. Despite the stereotypes, the book is well-written and gives new insights both for people with experiences from soccer/football, and also for researchers, students, coaches, leaders, and others without own experiences from the sport. It is especially of great interest for readers interested in the 1980s and 1990s soccer history, but also in team sport in general, and the break-through of women’s soccer. When the focus is put on one single national team for one period of international football history, one might think that this is not of interest for a global audience. But the book is not about soccer only, or not about one single national team in soccer only. Even if Goldman does not dive deeply into sociological questions, the book is also about the society that created the national team, development of high-performance skills in a team-sport, and the sisterhood, bonding and conflicts within the team. In my opinion, if you want to learn about performance on exceptionally high levels, this book is of great interest for you.

 

Besides the on-field sport stories, several stories from the players background are interesting to read. One example is Mia Hamm and the media attraction as well as her loss of a brother from an insidious blood disease, and later creating a foundation to help others in similar situations. A second example is Tiffeny Milbrett, a player from a blue-collar hardworking family from a farm in Oregon with thirteen siblings. Another one is about the goalkeeper Briana Scurry as the only African American at the team. Why she for a long time was ‘the only one’ is explained by the fact that the cost to take part in soccer was unaffordable for many minority families, and in the mid 1990s soccer was dominated by white middle-class suburban people and some sponsors wanted to keep it like this. The ‘Woman power’ in Brandi Chastain’s game-winning penalty kick is also presented and discussed. However, while the gender perspective is not deeply elaborated, the Title IX legislation to improve the situation for girls’ and women’s sport was crucial for the development of women’s football in the US. In this part, the conflicts with the U.S. Soccer Federation and lack of marketing, the lack of bonuses for second and third places, and the threat of withdrawing the team from upcoming Olympic games are touched on, as well as the pressure to perform and attract large crowd to create the interest for a professional women’s soccer league in the U.S.A.

In the same way as Gail Newsham told the untold stories about the Dick Kerr Ladies on the British Islands in the book In a league of their ow’, this book tells stories from a later part of women’s football history from a different part of the world, the U.S.A. The famous Dick Kerr’s Ladies attracted a 53,000 crowd at Everton’s Goodison Park on 26 December 1920, before the football association (FA) banned women’s football 5 December 1921, and the FA did not lift the ban until the 1960’s.  The U.S. Women’s Soccer met similar resistance from their own federation, i.e. lack of support and lack of marketing, as well as the governing body FIFA not developing tournaments for women at the early stage. This national soccer team broke new records in winning of medals and games within a short time, and new spectator records set in the World Cup in 1999 with 90,000 spectators on the stands supporting their home team winning the gold medal in the final match between USA and China.

This book can be recommended for everybody interested in soccer, peak performance sport, team-sport, as well as for sport scientists and students of sport sciences (history, psychology, sociology). Scholars, practitioners, and academics involved in sport, especially in soccer/football will have something to learn from the U.S. Women’s Soccer national team.

Copyright © Bente Ovedie Skogvang 2022

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