The 1980 United States Olympic hockey team is one of the most iconic teams in American sports history. At the very least, it’s one of the few triumphant American sports stories the nation can share outside of petty regional rivalries in professional sports. The iconic Al Michaels line, the Cold War implications, and the fact that the game was won on home soil all contribute to an indelible memory that sticks in the national consciousness and gets passed down from generation to generation of fans and even Americans who don’t typically follow sports.
Allow me a brief, impassioned corollary: the 1999 Women’s World Cup victory should be considered on the same level with the Miracle On Ice. So many parts of the story line up: a maligned second-tier sport, a tournament in the United States, a roster of amateurs, a pivotal game against a political rival where the opponent is initially favored, a history of tournament success (yes, the U.S. men’s hockey team won a gold medal in 1960 and was a perennial medal winner). Some may protest that the 1996 Olympic Women’s Gymnastics team competition was more significant—but it’s not a team sport in the traditional sense, more a combination of individual events, like if the Olympic swimming program had a team competition modeled after high school and college meets, with individual results contributing into an overall total (which would be demonstrably unfair outside of a few select countries in the race).
The 1999 WWC team did something entirely unprecedented for women’s sports in America: They got people to show up. Even after winning the first tournament in 1991, the team didn’t return home to much fanfare, while the men’s tournament in 1994 was specifically designed to incite enough public support to re-launch a top flight men’s professional league, and the MLS is still around. But the United States WWC games sold out football stadiums too, and the final against China still holds the highest attendance and highest television rating for a women’s sporting event, and at the time it was the highest rated soccer game of any kind in the U.S. But unlike the men’s league, women’s professional soccer success—greater success in big tournaments—has not translated to consistent professional competition
This team is iconic, specifically as a unit made up of individual icons in the sport. Mia Hamm was the reluctant Michael Jordan of women’s soccer, Brandi Chastain had the unforgettable snapshot of victory, Briana Scurry set the tone for future standout American goalkeepers—every single one of the eight women seated together at the Rose Bowl is a legend thanks to her performance in the 1999 tournament, and what The ‘99ers does so well is emphasize that the most important part of that performance was the team as a set of complementary parts.
The ‘99ers is the reason I sat up and took notice of Nine For IX in the first place. Don’t get me wrong, I’m really glad I’ve watched the whole series so far, because No Limits and Runner were pleasant surprises, but as a die-hard soccer fan, this was the première marked in my mind. And The ‘99ers delivered on every possible front. It provides behind-the-scenes access thanks to Julie Foudy’s ever-present home videos of team training. It hints at better, equal pay for national team athletes (and unintentionally connects to the question of equal pay raised by Venus Vs.). It continues the timeline to current players like Abby Wambach, Alex Morgan, and Christie Rampone (the only remaining member of that squad still active with the national team). The ‘99ers proves itself the flagship of this documentary collection, the one absolute can’t-miss entry because it encompasses an American cultural moment from the inside and hammers home the importance of these players coming together on that team at a precise point in time.
While there were a lot of other players on that team, and a few key starters are left out, the iconic players are included: Briana Scurry, Carla Overbeck, Brandi Chastain, Michelle Akers, Julie Foudy, Kristine Lilly, Joy Fawcett, and Mia Hamm. (And as a side note: excellent decision by management to commission a director other than Foudy, and to keep her guiding hand and voiceover to a minimum. Not because she doesn’t speak with passion or knowledge, but because one viewpoint shouldn’t overpower a team.) Just like the Jimmy V documentary and the 30 For 30 short Silver Reunion, reuniting a team of uniquely galvanized individuals brings out untouchable chemistry.
In retrospect, the 1999 team feels destined for that dramatic championship in front of 90,000 fans at the Rose Bowl, but all of Foudy’s footage shows a team pulled in every direction by unprecedented media attention (especially Hamm, who acquits herself well talking about the unwanted spotlight), while at the same time diffusing the tension with rambunctious actions, team bonding exercises, and a close-knit friendship that has lasted for decades.
Few documentaries depict teams as relaxed and easily competitive as the 1999 squad, whether they’re jokingly competing over filling cups for urine testing, or making funny videos in a backyard. Foudy’s footage must have taken ages to slog through, but it yields precious images of a championship team stepping up to the emotion of the moment and summoning the urgency necessary to succeed at the highest level when the opportunity emerged. That 1980 hockey team gets cited again and again because that success held inspirational significance in the American popular consciousness—like the underdog stories depicted in Disney films or Rudy. The 1999 USWNT deserves that same revered status, because they reflect an ideal: striving for team success through maximum individual performance in the right place at the right time.
The team members are proud of the victory, picking apart every little detail of training through each game of the tournament, but not distastefully boastful in their success, like certain other standout sports teams (and here I’m specifically thinking of annual champagne-popping football players). Regulation time in the 1999 final barely even matters in the film, it’s skipped over almost entirely in favor of the infamous penalty shootout. I still think it’s unfortunate for soccer tournaments to end this way; like hockey, I’d rather see endurance over time win out over a specialized subset of the game. But the result is almost superfluous to The ‘99ers—the handheld camera shot flooding the field after Chastain’s goal is the best part, because it’s a rarely-seen point of view. The inside information, discussion about player interactions, mindset, and camaraderie is far more interesting than rehashing the victory.
No figure has gone more unheralded in the wake of the team’s success than Michelle Akers, perhaps the most important cog in a monstrous midfield, haranguing opponents at tremendous cost to her own physical well being. But even Akers gets her moments in the sun here, able to convey her toughness and show exactly why the team looked up to her as a physical leader alongside captain Carla Overbeck. The ‘99ers touches on every important facet of the team, how every personality contributed to the mood of the team, its ability to take the game by the throat, but also its ability to fight back and overcome a bad situation. The quarterfinal against Germany took place 14 years ago, and I still found myself nervous watching the team go down 2-1 before halftime.
If there’s an aspect this documentary doesn’t touch on that I wanted to know about, it’s the pressure on the host nation of a tournament this size. France won the World Cup in 1998 and the United States took the 1999 women’s tournament, but there’s a spotty history of host nation victories in big sports tournaments. And not a single player or coach comes out of this looking anything but squeaky clean and saintly—nobody should buy that kind of portrayal. But The ‘99ers should remain the definitive statement on the 1999 Women’s World Cup team; it collects the most important personnel together, reflects on the moment where women’s soccer owned America for a summer, and captures the fits and starts of the sport since that one perfect moment in Pasadena.
- The connection with the USWNT’s run in the 2011 World Cup makes a lot of sense considering the comeback against Brazil (and not just because it’s the most recent tournament to draw on). But it also offers a small bit of perspective on the massive expectations heaped on the team now in light of the previous generation’s success. American female athletes have it better than almost any other nation in the world when it comes to access and opportunity to play sports (it’s also fair to point out this is a reason why the U.S. so thoroughly dominates international athletics), but this may be the first of the Nine For IX documentaries to subtly hint at why the titular policy is still important.
- A few more decades from now, I would love to see Disney give the 1999 team the Miracle-style sports movie treatment, if only because fantasy casting it would be so much fun.
- That 1980 Olympic hockey tournament didn’t follow the same kind of procedure that modern ones do. The medals were awarded by taking the top two teams from each group, playing them against the other two teams, and adding up points, with the results of the group games carried over. There wasn’t a final in the traditional sense—which makes the whole, “But they still had to beat Finland after the Soviets!” line ring a little softer. All the World Cups that followed a format other than a winner-take-all final also feel a bit less solid.
- If I could wish for one athlete to know ultimate triumph before retirement, it would be for Abby Wambach to participate in a World Cup winning effort. Maybe not as a starter, since by Canada 2015 Alex Morgan should hold down that spot with ease, but definitely as a dressing room presence and a super sub/player coach.
- “Jules, do you want to take your PK now?”—Michelle Akers, making the best lighthearted joke about that PK shootout to close the film.