By Frank Pingue
(Reuters) – The United States’ World Cup triumph on home soil in 1999 was a watershed moment for the sport but midfielder Julie Foudy had hoped it would help the women’s game grow at a much faster pace.
The third edition of the tournament was held in the U.S. in massive stadiums for the first time and new heights were reached for attendance, media coverage and television audiences.
“It was a chance for us to show the United States and the world what a women’s sporting event should look like,” Foudy, who went on to become U.S. captain from 2000 to 2004, told Reuters in a telephone interview.
“We knew that there was still a resistance to supporting young girls playing sports and participating in sports so if we could give an example of why it’s so important then we wanted to run with that opportunity.”
The U.S. beat China 5-4 on penalties in the final, which was goalless after extra time, in searing temperatures in front of more than 90,185 fans at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California — still a record attendance for a women’s soccer game.
That 1999 victory captivated the nation and was supposed to serve as a lift-off point to a bright future of professional women’s soccer leagues, greater exposure and generally more of everything for women across the entire sports spectrum.
While progress was made over the next 20 years, gaps remain, including one that convinced the current U.S. team to sue the U.S. Soccer Federation for gender discrimination in the lead-up to their World Cup defence in France next month.
The 48-year-old Foudy, twice a World Cup winner and Olympic gold medallist who is currently a writer and commentator for ESPN, said she was beyond surprised that in this day and age there was even a need for such a dispute.
“And frustrated. And tired,” she added. “It’s exhausting to keep fighting that fight and especially (for them) to do it right before a World Cup to launch that battle, but it meant that much to them that they felt they needed to do it.
“But you look back and say, didn’t we show 20 years ago that this (winning the World Cup) is something that has the potential to create a wonderful market for women’s soccer.”
Foudy, who hosted a one-hour ESPN special that aired last week called “The ‘99ers, Reunited” and featured five of her former team mates, said more countries had since stepped up their efforts to support the women’s game and that will be easy to see at next month’s World Cup.
“It’s the first (World Cup) where I’ve been able to count the number of potential winners on more than one hand, which is a good sign,” said Foudy, who predicts either the U.S. or France will lift the trophy.
“There are countries out there who have put the money in and are investing and now they are seeing the returns of a potential World Cup-winning team. But it’s been slow for sure.”
Foudy said a number of countries have embraced the women’s game since her team’s 1999 triumph and pointed specifically to France and England, the latter having been wished good luck ahead of this year’s tournament by Britain’s Prince William.
But Foudy suggested other countries need to be pushed to support the women’s game and she did not understand why any would hesitate to invest more for what she felt was a large return.
“You still get to this day countries that constantly say, ‘oh my gosh, I am surprised by the reaction by my country to the women’s game,’” said Foudy.
“It’s like, when are we going to stop being surprised? When it really is the global game and it’s simple things. It’s low hanging fruit supporting girls playing and there’s a large return (on a small investment). That’s the thing that just gets me.”
(Reporting by Frank Pingue in Toronto; Editing by Ken Ferris)