The record shows that the United States won the first-ever FIFA Women’s World Cup in 1991. Michelle Akers’ goal to make it 2-1 over Norway in the final came in the 78th minute. That would indicate that the Americans won the first world title of any U.S. soccer team—men’s or women’s—after a 12-plus-minute defensive stand to close out the full 90.
None of those things are exactly true. And very few Americans know, because very few Americans actually saw it happen.
“Some could argue that that the journey of women’s soccer began in the mid-'80s. Others have it popping up when Alex Morgan or Abby Wambach popped up,” says April Heinrichs, a starter on the U.S. team in 1991 who is now Development Director for U.S. women’s soccer. “In reality, the 1991 World Cup was kind of like a silent trigger.”
Let’s start with the most basic of facts: in 1991, the U.S. women didn’t win the World Cup. That’s not what the tournament was called. Back then, before women’s soccer became a money maker, the competition was known by an epic mouthful of a title: The FIFA Women’s World Championship For The M&Ms Cup.
Why M&Ms? Because Mars candy, which makes M&Ms, was the tournament’s sole corporate sponsor. FIFA only applied its sacred “World Cup” branding to the event after the success of the premiere, and the 1991 edition was renamed in the record books.
But at the time, it was clear that even though the tournament provided an opportunity for female players to compete like their male counterparts, the governing body didn’t think they played quite the same game. In planning the tournament, FIFA gave serious consideration to having the women use a size-four ball—a smaller sphere typically only used in youth games —instead of the standard size five used in the mens’ tournament. More important, a size five was all the players on the U.S. women’s team had used for most of their lives.
That discriminatory idea may not have stuck, but a few others did.
“I remember an enormous amount of attention being paid to how much jewelry we were wearing,” says Heinrichs. “You couldn’t wear a ring, couldn’t have anything at all, which was fine...even though at the time the men were wearing more jewelry than we were.”
FIFA also shortened the time of the games to 80 minutes, separated into two 40-minute halves.
“They were afraid our ovaries were going to fall out if we played 90!” says Heinrichs.
If the intention of the 80-minute match was to “make things easier on the ladies,” then the event’s compressed scheduling completely undid that misguided idea. The U.S.’s run to the final involved playing an incredible six games over 13 days. The team never enjoyed more than one day off between contests. This, after many players travelled across the world just to get to China for the tournament.
“Goodness gracious, the girls can’t last 90, and yet we played every other day in a country where you couldn’t eat any of the food or you’d have diarrhea constantly,” Akers says. “It was harder than any tournament a man would ever play.”
If any team in the tournament was physically prepared to handle it, it was the United States. And if any player best embodied that attitude, it was Akers.
The first time current U.S. coach Jill Ellis saw Akers play, they stood on opposite fields with their youth clubs in the 1984 under-19 national championship game. Standing 5-foot-10 with a signature mop of wily, curly hair on her head, Akers stood quite literally above the rest.
“During player introductions they said she was an All-American, and I didn’t know what that was at the time,” remembers Ellis, who was born in England and moved to the U.S. in 1981. “Then Michelle trots out and she was just so tall and imposing. My buddy and I turned to each other and were just like, Whoa.”
That physical presence combined with a legendary on-field ferocity. Normally a central midfielder, Akers would scrap doggedly for loose balls. She would press forward and power headers toward goal. Often, she could win her teams games thanks to sheer physicality.
So it made sense when Akers was called in to the very first women’s national team in 1985, scoring the first goal in the team’s history in its second game. But the team still struggled internationally until Anson Dorrance was hired as its head coach.
Dorrance had built a women’s soccer powerhouse at North Carolina by emphasizing extreme competitiveness and physical play. Often, his teams won games thanks to sheer physicality. The match in philosophies between coach and player could hardly have been better. Of those called in to the first women’s national team squad in 1985, Dorrance only took two to the 1991 World Cup. Of those two, only Akers became a starter.
“Michelle was a role model to all of us,” says Carin Jennings-Gabarra, who played alongside Akers and won the Golden Ball as the best overall player at the ‘91 World Cup. “She cared so much about making sure she left every ounce of effort on the field...there were times when even Anson had to tell her to take it down a notch because she would just go so hard all time time, to the point to where she would risk injury.”
Dorrance populated the national team largely with players from his North Carolina program, including the central midfield duo of Shannon Higgins and Kristine Lilly. Akers, a natural in the center of the park, was moved to the unfamiliar role of target forward. It didn’t take long for her to excel there, as the head of a three-pronged attack along with Heinrichs and Jennings-Gabarra. The Chinese press referred to it as the “triple-edged sword,” And Akers was probably the sharpest edge.
The Americans stormed their way through the tournament, rattling off multi-goal wins including a 7-0 shellacking of Chinese Taipei in which Akers scored five goals. Waiting for them in the final would Norway. A world championship, the first world championship, was on the line.
The U.S. and Norway had laid the foundation for one of the sport’s legendary rivalries years before that historic final. The countries played each other seven times in various contexts, with the U.S. winning three and losing four. But the teams’ two meetings in the lead-in to the ‘91 cup were especially disappointing for the Americans—they lost both, at home.
“We hated Norway. We always hated them,” says Akers. “They were good, they were tough, they were bitchy, they talked smack. I hated them, but it was fun. I loved hating them. It was great. For me, the more I hate them the harder I end up playing.”
The game had all the trappings of a major event. National anthems were sung, Pele greeted the teams before kickoff, and 60,000 packed the stands. It was the most fans the majority of the players had ever performed in front of, though, as Heinrichs remembers, “it was a remarkably quiet 60,000.” A grueling run of games was coming to a close.
“We were a quality team, but we were starting to tire,” remembers Jennings-Gabarra. “There was a lot of stress and emotion built upon those games before. Still, we expected to win, we expected to dominate physically.”
The teams traded goals off free kicks in an even first half, with Akers scoring the first for the United States in the 20th minute, and the Norwegians netting their own nine minutes later. Akers doesn’t remember much about halftime, other than a lot of yelling in the locker room. But on the way back out on to the field, she remembers being approached by goalkeeper coach Tony DiCicco.
“He put his arm around me and said ‘Mich, you’re gonna have to win the game,’” she says. “It wasn’t said like it was encouragement. It wasn’t ‘C’mon, you can do it.’ It was one of those truths. Inside, it struck me. Like ‘Yes, I am gonna have to win this. I know. Why didn’t that occur to me?!’”
From there on, Akers hunted down every chance she could. Every loose ball, she pursued. Every time the U.S. brought the ball upfield, Akers fought for position to receive it.
“In a World Cup final, you’re already nervous,” Heinrichs says. “Now just imagine that escalating through the entire game.”
As the clock ticked toward the game’s final seconds, Akers’ hunting instincts paid off. Higgins attempted a long, lofted ball from midfield, hit with too much power for any U.S. forward to run on to. Norway defender Tina Svensson intercepted the ball. In the vast majority of games, that would have been the end of the move. Clearly, the ball belonged to the Norwegians.
“No,” Akers thought, still in full-on hunting mode. “I think I can get it.”
Almost as soon as she had taken the ball, Svnesson had Akers barrelling down upon her back. Svensson attempted a back pass to her goalkeeper Reidun Seth, just as Akers slammed into her right shoulder. Bad idea. The pass fell short of Seth, who was now dangerously off her line. Akers continued her locomotive charge, taking a touch past the helpless goalkeeper. Out of a nothing play, all that stood between Akers and the winning goal in a World Cup final was a six-yard patch of grass.
“At that point,” says Jennings-Gabarra, “it just felt like everything was in slow-motion.”
This wasn’t a simple tap-in. Akers had just finished a lung-busting run, and the ball had fallen on her weaker left foot. Her angle on the goal became more acute with each passing millisecond. The ball rolled toward the endline and Seth began a frantic retreat to her goalmouth. Altogether, it was far from an ideal spot to slow and consider the options.
But that’s exactly what Akers did.
“I remember thinking ‘No, I better cut this back and pass it in with my right foot, so I have as much of the goal as I can,’” she says. “To me, it didn’t happen in slow motion. I took a deep breath and just kinda…did it.”
The ball rolled over the line in the 78th minute. A mere two minutes later, plus stoppage, the United States became women’s soccer’s first world champions.
“You try and keep that composure all the way up to that last ‘n’th of a second, so you put the ball where you want it,” says Akers. “And then once that is done, then you explode.”
Cameras surrounded the U.S. team as they celebrated their victory, hooping and hollering and jumping uncontrollably around one another. The images conveyed pure jubilation -- the kind that translates no matter what the sport is. But as far as most of the U.S. knew at the time, those cameras weren’t there, and nothing important had happened.
In 1991, the best womens soccer team on the planet earned that title wearing hand-me downs: The Adidas jerseys provided to the United States had previously belonged to a U.S. boys youth squad. Akers scored more goals than anyone else in the tournament despite eating almost nothing except peanut butter on bread and free Snickers bars (that Mars candy sponsorship wasn’t for nothing). With a $10 per diem, few on the team could afford much else, and the Chinese diet simply didn’t sit well with some.
In 1991, the best womens soccer team on the planet had no full-time coaching staff. Head coach Anson Dorrance remained the boss at UNC, which played (and won) the 1991 NCAA title game while he coached the U.S. in China. Players that weren’t in college at the time of the tournament held down coaching jobs to pay the bills. With no individual sponsorship deals, players had to buy their own shoes, and thanks to the Unites States’ equipment sponsor, “dammit they better be Adidas or you’d have to go barefoot,” says Akers.
By the time the 1995 Women’s World Cup got underway, nearly all of that had changed. And from there, the dominoes continued to fall.
“If we finish second in the 1991 World Cup, I don’t think we get the support we got going into the ‘95 World Cup. If we don’t get the support in ‘95, I don’t think we have as many people attending the 96 Olympics. Once we got 25,000 fans a game at the Olympics, that gave FIFA the incentive to support women’s soccer with a bigger tournament in 1999,” says Heinrichs. “Michelle’s goal really led to a lot of the success of and commitment to women’s soccer, and also to the fans that still support us.”
But the fan support was not immediate. At least, not in anywhere near the numbers the team enjoys today. The United States returned home after winning the World Cup to find that few outside the soccer community seemed to care about their accomplishment.
“It was interesting...we just did this huge thing, and you come home and it’s life as usual,” says Akers. “But at the same time, the people that were aware of it were going crazy. It was this weird dynamic between unaware to people that were fanatics.”
Among those fanatics, only a precious few were able to actually watch Akers’ goal. SportsChannel America, a cable station that few were able to get, showed the match on tape delay, with commercials during the run of play. Aside from that, most were only followed the tournament via Soccer America magazine, which published the results weeks after the games actually took place.
But then, grabbing worldwide attention was never the point of the 1991 World Cup, with all it’s bizarre flaws and growing pains. It was, at the end of the day, an experiment. One that blossomed into something much bigger, thanks largely to Akers’ goal.
“If FIFA hadn’t decided to have an experimental World Cup, and it didn’t turn out as exciting as it was and as high level as it was, and the U.S. didn’t win, the interest for women’s soccer just wouldn’t have been there,” Akers says. “It was like we were too good to ignore.”