Skip to main content
Original Issue

Books The 1999 Women's World Cup is a tale of a U.S. victory and a gender revolution

The Girls of Summer/by Jere Longman/Harper Collins, $24

It's no small achievement that Longman, a sportswriter for The
New York Times, backs up the bold claim of his book's subtitle
in this well-written story of the 1999 World Cup champions.
Women's soccer had been viewed with ambivalence on these shores
until last summer, when "for the first time," Longman writes,
"Americans on a large scale felt...the rosary-clutch, the chest
ache, that makes this game the athletic heartbeat of nearly
every other country in the world."

With enough new behind-the-scenes reporting to satisfy the most
inveterate soccer fan, Longman gives a detailed account of the
gut-busting final between the U.S. and China, pausing throughout
to reflect on the context of the event: its place in relation to
Title IX, the role of race in U.S. soccer and the sexualizing of
the U.S. team. Interspersed are profiles of the players. There's
Brandi Chastain, the ready-for-stardom defender nicknamed
Hollywood; Tiffeny Milbrett, the prolific yet overshadowed
striker; and Mia Hamm, the conflicted star who responds to
Longman's appreciation of her candor by saying, "You mean
because half the time I go out there I think I suck?"

The most fascinating passages address how World Cup '99 affected
teams from other countries that participated. After one North
Korean player discovered she could visit a dentist for free, the
majority of her teammates complained of dental ailments as well.
The Nigerian star Mercy Akide returned to the U.S. after the
tournament and enrolled at Milligan College in Tennessee, where
she played last season. Longman visited China to speak with the
runners-up and blasts the myth that the Chinese players were "a
paper chain of dolls, identical, unchanging, as mass produced as
Andy Warhol's soup cans." We hear at length from tournament MVP
Sun Wen, a poetry-writing environmentalist; goalkeeper Gao Hong,
a Christian in an officially atheist land; and Liu Ying, the
tragic figure who missed the fateful penalty kick that determined
the winner.

Longman's book isn't perfect--he takes too many gratuitous shots
at U.S. men's soccer--but his testimony about the World Cup's
enormous impact is persuasive. Women's soccer still has a long
way to go to gain full international respect, but the Chinese
women are now outdrawing the pro men's league in one of their
country's provinces. The European governing body, UEFA, has
organized a women's pro club tournament to rival the U.S. league,
WUSA, that launches next April. Longman even quotes Henry
Kissinger extolling President Clinton's use of the World Cup to
advance Sino-U.S. relations. Ultimately there's no denying that
the U.S. women have changed how we look at gender and sport in
this country. The subtitle of Longman's book will only become
more and more prescient as time goes on.