It is one of the most famous sports photographs of the 1990s, the now-iconic image of U.S. soccer player Brandi Chastain on her knees, clenching her jersey in her right fist and exulting over the successful penalty kick that had just decided the 1999 Women’s World Cup.
Every picture tells a story, but the shot of Chastain tells several. It not only captured the emotional release experienced by an athlete realizing the apex of her career but also symbolized what that World Cup tournament meant to U.S. women’s soccer -- and women’s sports in general.
The 1999 Women’s World Cup took the women’s sports movement to places it had been told were beyond its reach:
To mammoth NFL stadiums, which were filled with spectators. To massive television ratings; about 40 million viewers watched the final between the U.S. and China, played in front of 90,125 at the Rose Bowl.
The nation tuned in to see an event, but along the way witnessed the greatest team in women’s soccer history. That U.S. squad had already staked its claim to those credentials, winning the first Women’s World Cup in 1991 and first Olympic gold medal in women’s soccer in 1996.
By 1999, the stars were aligned on the field and ready to take a bow. Any all-time women’s soccer all-star team would begin with the names of Michelle Akers and Mia Hamm, teammates in a major tournament for the last time that summer. In 2004, FIFA commissioned Pele to name the 125 greatest living soccer players and Akers and Hamm were the only women -- and Americans -- to make the list.
Hamm was at her career peak in ’99, still five years from retirement. She finished her international career with a record 158 goals.
Akers retired from competitive soccer after the ’99 World Cup. She played 90 tenacious minutes in a scoreless final, then was substituted for exhaustion, needing IV fluids to recover from dehydration.
Other members of the U.S. lineup rank among the most famous names in women’s soccer: Kristine Lilly, Julie Foudy, Tiffeny Milbrett, Carla Overbeck, Joy Fawcett, Briana Scurry.
Scurry, the American goalkeeper, made her reputation in the shootout against China, setting up Chastain’s clincher by making a sprawling save on China’s third attempt.
Talking about that squad and its place in history, Tony DiCicco, coach of the 1999 U.S. women’s team, told The Times’ Grahame Jones in 2007, “I think the ’99 team is still the standard. And the ’96 team isn’t far behind.”