After defeating the powerhouse German team earlier this week, 2-0, the United States became the first country to reach the World Cup final on four occasions. US squads previously squared off in the 1991, 1999, and 2011 championships, winning titles in 1991 and 1999. Such an accomplishment is impressive in its own right; yet, when considering the relatively short history of the Women’s World Cup, the accolade is even more noteworthy. With Sunday’s game against Japan, the United States will have made it to the finals four times in just seven World Cup tournaments.
The Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) assembled in 1904 and established the World Cup in 1930; however, the organization did not accept women until the 1980s, nor stamp its “World Cup” trademark onto an international women’s contest until 1991. Consequently, for much of the twentieth century, female soccer players faced an uphill battle in the fight for recognition.
The history of women in international soccer competitions is thus one shaped by discriminatory treatment. As historian J.A. Mangan explains, “The struggles of women footballers across the world has involved the persistent ‘unmaking’ of laughable pseudo-logic, crude stereotype and malicious myth” (pg. 2). While FIFA repeatedly perpetuated negative pseudo-logic, stereotypes, and myths to exclude female athletes from officially sanctioned events, female leaders organized competitions that legitimized women’s soccer, as well as paved the way for world-wide validity. The evolution of women’s international contests, which culminated in the 1991 Women’s World Cup, illustrates male sporting authorities’ reluctance to recognize—and female practitioners’ determination to expand—women’s soccer.
Early Appearances in International Competitions
While most national soccer associations, and later FIFA, initially refused to include women, female athletes nonetheless vied to compete. Soccer historian Jean Williams marks 1881 as the year of the first unofficial women’s game, a contest played under some rules of the Football Association (FA), the governing body of soccer in England. Despite facing tremendous opposition from the larger public, the women continued to develop the sport and in 1895 formed the British Ladies Football Club (BLFC), the first official organization of female soccer players. Yet, according to journalist Paul Brown, the BLFC also faced obstacles, which included bans on practice facilities, public derision, and mockery in the newspapers. For example, during the BLFC’s first North London versus South London match, many spectators attended merely to jeer at the athletes, while press accounts expressed similar disdain. “It would be idle to attempt any description of the play,” noted the Daily Sketch, a British national tabloid. “The first few minutes were sufficient to show that football by women is totally out of the question. A footballer requires speed, judgement, skill and pluck. Not one of these four qualities was apparent on Saturday.” Although the public and the press may have disliked the sight of women soccer players, the oddity of the female events allowed for them to be commercially successful. The BLFC toured for the next two years, competing in about one hundred exhibition matches.
In the eyes of many men’s soccer organizations, the women’s side transitioned from peculiar spectacle to worrisome rival in the 1920s. As the most notable example, the Dick, Kerr Ladies Football Club—first formed to raise money for World War I—found unprecedented popular and monetary success. When the female players gained recognition, the male soccer officials grew concerned. In 1921, the all-male FA banned women from playing on any of its associated pitches. The governing body claimed the Dick, Kerr Ladies Football Club misused gate receipts that were intended for charity; however, according to sport scholar M. Ann Hall, the FA’s assertion was merely a pretense and that the prohibition actually stemmed from the FA’s dislike of the women’s growing popularity.
Many other organizations felt similarly about women’s soccer and implemented similar bans. For example, in 1922, the Dominion Football Association, the governing body of soccer in Canada, barred female athletes from competing against touring teams. The Fédération Française de Football, the governing body of soccer in France, did not explicitly exclude women but refused to recognize female teams. Such prohibitions limited women’s participation internationally and sidelined the sport for almost half a century.
Women’s World Championships and Asian Women’s Cup
After relegating female competition to local and regional events for nearly fifty years, several national associations eventually lifted their bans on women’s soccer in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The FA again led the way by dropping its restriction in 1969. While seemingly altruistic, the maneuver stemmed more from the organization’s fear of losing control of the increasingly popular female pastime than from any concerns about equality. Nevertheless, with reinstatement, women gained new opportunities for international competitions.
In 1970, Italy hosted the first Women’s World Championship. As some European soccer associations still did not recognize the women’s sport, the Federation of Independent European Female Football (FIEFF) sponsored the tournament. Austria, Denmark, England, Germany, Italy, Mexico, and Switzerland participated in the inaugural event. The FIEFF initially planned for Czechoslovakia to round out the eight-team competition, but the country withdrew, leaving seven squads. Denmark defeated England, 2-0, to win the North group, while Italy defeated Mexico, 2-1, to win the South group. Then, according to scholars Anne Brus and Else Trangbaek, 50,000 spectators attended the final and watched Denmark claim the title, 2-0.
Mexico hosted the second Women’s World Championships the following year. From the onset, tournament officials faced obstacles and resistance. First, the Federation of Mexican Football opposed the forum and threatened to fine any club that granted women access to their fields. Organizers circumvented the issue by holding games in Estadio Azteca, a privately-owned stadium and home to the Mexico national football team, and Estadio Jalisco, site of the 1970 FIFA World Cup. With the two locations secured, the planners invited Argentina, Denmark, England, France, Italy, and Mexico to the tournament.
To combat public opposition during the event, organizers highlighted the female soccer players’ appearances. “We’re really going to stress the feminine angle,” explained Jaime De Hargo, head of the organizing committee. He further justified this plan by explaining that he wanted to capitalize upon “the two passions of most men around the world: soccer and women.”
To fulfill this objective, officials played upon conventional notions of femininity. For example, players wore bright, multi-colored tops and “hot pants” during matches to showcase their feminine physiques (one wonders if this is where FIFA President Sepp Blatter got the idea). In addition, the athletes scored between goal posts painted pink, surrounded by female security officers, also clad in pink. To further ensure the titillation of the fans, semi-clad majorettes performed throughout the games. And, upon the end of a match, players went into the beauty salons situated inside the locker room. The space ensured “the girls can present themselves for interviews and public ceremonies complete with false eyelashes, lipstick and an attractive hairdo,” explained one reporter. Finally, the organizers created Xochitl, the tournament’s mascot, and stamped the dark-haired little girl with pig-tails onto tournament paraphernalia. Her cuteness worked to undermine the athleticism displayed on-field.
Because of the overt sexualization of the female athletes, the second Women’s World Championship garnered significant attention. Matches reportedly drew an average of 15,000 fans, with all of Mexico’s games recording over 50,000 spectators. When the home team lost to Denmark in the final, 0-3, supposedly over 111,000 people gathered to watch.
The combination of fake eyelashes, hot pants, and athleticism made the second Women’s World Championship a financial success, and several international organizations took notice. As Williams notes, in 1971, the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA)—first founded in 1954—added a Committee for Women’s Football. The UEFA tasked the committee, comprised entirely of men, with planning an official European Championship for women. Sadly the group disbanded in 1978 without accomplishing this objective. In 1972, FIFA also considered adding women to the docket, yet reasoned that a lighter ball, smaller field, and shorter matches would better suit the unique needs of female players. Despite the suggestion of such modifications, FIFA opted to pass on women’s inclusion. Therefore it was the Asian Ladies Football Confederation (ALFC) that next sustained international competition for female soccer players.
In 1968, the ALFC formed with representatives from Hong Kong, Malaysia, Singapore, and Taiwan. Seven years later, the group organized the first Women’s Asian Cup. Australia, Singapore, and Thailand comprised Group A, and Hong Kong, Malaysia, and New Zealand comprised Group B. In the finals, New Zealand defeated Thailand, 3-1. The ALFC continued to hold tournaments every two years—except from 1983 to 1989 when the group spaced the events to every three years—keeping international women’s soccer afloat. Furthermore, the popularity of the Asian Cups convinced the Chinese-Taipei Football Association to found the Women’s World Invitational Tournament in 1978, thereby providing yet another international opportunity for female soccer players. The event repeated in 1981, 1984, and 1987. Even more importantly, the successes of these tournaments slowly started to pressure FIFA into accepting women. However, it would take several additional forums to fully convince the organization.
The Mundialitos and Debut of the USWNT
In 1980, six teams gathered in Montevideo, Uruguay, to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the first men’s World Cup, held in the same city. Five former World Cup winning nations competed in the Mundialito, the “little World Cup”: Argentina, Brazil, Italy, West Germany, and Uruguay, with the Netherlands—runners-up in the 1974 and 1978 tournament—replacing England, which had declined the invitation. Uruguay defeated Brazil, 2-1, in the final. Women’s soccer followed the example and established five Mundialitos between 1982 and 1988, all hosted by Italy. For the first two tournaments, held in 1982 and 1984, Italy claimed the titles. The 1985 event saw the dethroning of the Italians by the English squad, as well as the debut of the USWNT.
When the United States received an invitation to compete in the 1985 Mundialito, the US Soccer Federation (USSF) quickly announced its plan to form a women’s national team, a first for the governing body. The USSF designated such teams in 1982, 1983, and 1984; however, the selected players never actually competed together. With an international contest looming, the USSF invited seventy athletes, mostly from University teams, to tryout during the National Sports Festival, held in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. After the festival, the seventeen players selected by head coach Mike Ryan had one week to prepare for the Mundialito. Ryan held a three-day camp at the C.W. Post Campus of Long Island University where the squad practiced in a field some likened to a cow pasture, while frequently being surrounded by high school cheerleaders on campus for a camp. Along with the imperfect conditions and limited practice time, the USWNT received rudimentary equipment. The USSF gave the team previously used uniforms without any lettering; therefore, the players had to visit a local sporting goods store to have their names and numbers ironed on prior to boarding the plane for Italy.
Not surprisingly, the rag-tag team from the United States did not fare well abroad, finishing 0-3-1. The USWNT lost to England and Italy, and tied Denmark, in the first round, before losing to Denmark in the consolation match. The USSF fired Ryan and replaced him with University of North Carolina women’s head soccer coach Anson Dorrance. In the early 1980s, Dorrance started a soccer dynasty at UNC. Under his tutelage, the Tar Heels won the 1981 AIAW title and the NCAA championships in 1982, 1983, and 1984. Moreover, with Dorrance at the helm, the USWNT started to find its footing in international competitions. In the 1986 Mundialito, the US squad defeated Brazil, China, and Japan, before losing to Italy, 0-1, in the championship match. Two years later, in the next Mundialito, the team beat France and West Germany, finishing third.
The successes of the Mundialitos, which had included teams from nine countries and four continents, again encouraged FIFA to reevaluate adding women under its umbrella. This time, however, FIFA’s considerations shifted from assertions of exclusion to questions of capability. As Williams argues, “The narrative about women’s football began to change. . . . There was less concern about whether women should be allowed to play than how well biology would allow them to perform” (pg. 30). FIFA may have started to change its tune, yet the organization continued to embrace negative ideologies about female soccer players.
The 1st FIFA World Championship for Women’s Football for the M&M’s Cup
On the heels of the Mundialitos, Norwegian delegate Ellen Wille stood before the 1986 FIFA Congress and demanded the organization pay attention to women’s soccer. Tellingly, she was the first woman to speak at such a forum. “I took to the stage at the FIFA Congress, and pointed out that women’s football was mentioned nowhere in any of the documents,” she recalled. “I also said it was high time the women had their own World Cup and took part in the Olympic Football Tournament.” Perhaps not surprisingly, most of her male colleagues did not welcome the suggestions; however, FIFA President João Havelange agreed with Wille.
Therefore, with an increasing number of girls and women taking to the fields, and at the behest of Havelange, FIFA members decided a trial tournament would help the organization gauge both participant interest and ability. In 1988, Guangdong, China, hosted the FIFA Women’s Invitation Tournament as a potential dress rehearsal for an official Women’s World Cup. Twelve teams from six confederations competed: Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, Czechoslovakia, Ivory Coast, Japan, Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Thailand, and the United States, with Norway defeating Sweden in the final, 1-0. The tournament convinced FIFA members to welcome women aboard, at least partly.
Three years after the FIFA Women’s Invitation Tournament, FIFA again oversaw an international women’s event: The 1st FIFA World Championship for Women’s Football for the M&M’s Cup. As Williams argues, the continued experimental nature of the women’s championship showed in its title. Although female athletes from around the globe competed, FIFA still refused to grant women “World Cup” status. In this notable absence, the M&M Cup designation took the lead, stemming from the event’s sole commercial sponsor.
Because Guangdong, China, already possessed the plans and infrastructure for the event, FIFA awarded the city the 1991 tournament. While the city remained consistent, organizers considered adopting other changes to better suit the supposed biological abilities of female soccer players. FIFA members initially suggested women use a size-four ball, a smaller piece of equipment most frequently used in youth games, for competitions. After much debate, organizers agreed to maintain the standard size-five ball. Yet, they shortened the length of the game to eighty minutes, instead of the customary ninety minutes, to safeguard women’s health. “They were afraid our ovaries were going to fall out if we played 90!” US player April Heinrichs suggested sarcastically.
However, the supposed fear for women’s wellness contradicted the tournament’s compressed schedule. According to Sports Illustrated reporter Alexander Abnos, the USWNT played six games over thirteen days, with a maximum of one day off between contests. Despite the tiring agenda, the USWNT advanced. In front of 60,000 fans, and in uniforms worn previously by a boys’ youth squad, the US women defeated Norway to win the 1st FIFA World Championship for Women’s Football for the M&M’s Cup.
After deeming the tournament a success, FIFA retroactively renamed the tournament the first Women’s World Cup.
Although thousands of fans watched the USWNT claim the M&M Cup, the news barely reached the American shores. SportsChannel America served as the lone US station to show the game, and only did so on tape delay and with awkwardly timed commercials. Michelle Akers, who scored both US goals in the triumph over Norway, remembered feeling disappointed upon her return to the United States after the victory. “We’d gone through this incredible thing, and we come home and it’s like the ‘Twilight Zone.’ Nobody knew what was going on,” she explained. “It was kind of my introduction to how long a road women’s soccer really had to go” (pg. 14).
Undoubtedly, from the 1991 Women’s World Cup onward, women’s soccer has advanced down this long road. Yet, when the USWNT arrives in Vancouver on Sunday for the title match, the team will compete on artificial turf, as it did for the entirety of the tournament. One look at the turf and you get a sense of the continued battle female soccer players have to fight.
Lindsay Parks Pieper is an Assistant Professor of Sport Management at Lynchburg College. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and can be followed on Twitter @LindsayPieper. Check out her website at www.lindsayparkspieper.com.
 Quoted in Paul Brown, The Victorian Football Miscellany (London: Superelastic, 2013), 156.
 “Soccer Goes Sexy South of the Border,” New York Times, June 27, 1971, S24.
 “The Barriers are Falling in Soccer,” New York Times, April 2, 1972, S6.
 The Asian Ladies Football Confederation was absorbed into the Asian Football Confederation in 1986.
 Clemente A. Lisi, The U.S. Women’s Soccer Team: An American Success Story (Lanham: Scarecrow Press, Inc., 2010), 1-5.