1991 – Three years after a successful dry run in China PR, FIFA returned to the Middle Kingdom for the inaugural FIFA Women’s World Cup and was rewarded with some impressive attendance figures. Twelve teams, divided into three groups of four, battled for the title in matches lasting only 80 minutes. The final in Guangzhou brought together two countries that were already at the forefront of the women’s game – the USA and Norway (despite the latter’s opening 4-0 defeat by the Chinese hosts). In the end, the Americans claimed a hard-fought 2-1 victory, and Michelle Akers finished the tournament with 10 goals to her name to secure her place as the first superstar of the women’s game. The victorious USA side also featured Mia Hamm, Kristine Lilly, Julie Foudy and a number of other players who would go on to leave their mark at the top of the women’s game in the years to come.
1995 – The tournament in Sweden was also played in three groups of four teams, mostly in smaller cities and stadiums and without the huge spectator numbers that would descend upon the tournament four years later. The first Women’s World Cup on European soil was, however, still played in a wonderful atmosphere during the height of the Swedish summer. In the opening match, the Swedish hosts surprisingly lost to Brazil and they only secured their place in the next round thanks to an impressive victory over Germany. Ultimately, Norway became the first European side to claim the world title, the Scandinavians overcoming reigning European champions Germany in the final at the legendary Rasunda Stadium. Interestingly, the German side featured both Silvia Neid and an 18-year-old Birgit Prinz, who still holds the record as the youngest player to play in a Women’s World Cup final. The Norwegians also claimed the other main trophies, with Ann Kristin Aarones winning the Golden Shoe and Hege Riise the Golden Ball. In the playoff for third place, the USA edged past the emerging Steel Roses from China PR. Nigeria, meanwhile, became the first African team to win a point at the Women’s World Cup.
1999 – The Women’s World Cup in the USA was a massive event in every way. It was the first to feature 16 teams, and the matches were all played in huge stadiums, most of which had been used in the 1994 FIFA World Cup USA. The teams had to cover considerable distances too, travelling from the north to the south of the country and particularly from the east to the west coast. The hosts’ painstaking organizational work and on-pitch preparations were ultimately rewarded, however, when more than 90,000 fans – a record for women’s football – flocked to the final at Pasadena’s Rose Bowl to witness a nail-biting victory for the USA over China PR in a penalty shootout, three years after the Americans’ triumph over the same opponents in the final of the inaugural Women’s Olympic Football Tournament. The playoff for third place saw Brazil defeat the dethroned Norwegian world champions, also in a penalty shootout. Nigeria notched up another African first by becoming the first African team to reach the quarterfinals China PR’s Sun Wen claimed the Golden Ball, and Brazil’s Sissi won the Golden Shoe.
2003 – For the first time in FIFA history, a final competition was held in the same country for the second consecutive edition. The 2003 Women’s World Cup was originally due to be played in China PR but the SARS crisis saw those plans shelved so the USA stepped in at the last minute and successfully organized a World Cup at just a few months’ notice. Three countries – France, Korea Republic and Argentina – made their debut at USA 2003, but the major surprises came in matches involving North American teams. China PR’s star had begun to fall, with the 1999 runners-up losing in the quarterfinals to Canada, and the USA also learned the hard way that their rivals had narrowed the gap, with Germany powering past them 3-0 in the semifinals to set up a second all-European final. The final itself was an open, thrilling match that went into extra time before the Germans scored a Golden Goal to claim not only their first world title but also the top spot in the FIFA Women’s World Ranking. Birgit Prinz claimed both the Golden Ball and the Golden Shoe, whereas Brazil gave the world its first glimpse of a talented 17-year-old striker by the name of Marta.
2007 – The Women’s World Cup returned to China PR four years later than originally planned. There were no debutants in 2007, but for the first time, FIFA made prize money available for the tournament, which was attended by one million fans, a figure bettered only by USA 1999. The semifinals saw both Norway and the USA come up short, the latter falling to a heavy defeat at the hands of Brazil. The Brazilians’ joy was short-lived, however, as they went on to lose the first European-South American final to Germany, who became the first team to not only defend their world crown but also to not concede a single goal in six matches. It was an impressive feat, not least thanks to goalkeeper Nadine Angerer. Brazilian magician Marta won the fans’ hearts as well as the Golden Ball and Golden Shoe. Norway’s Ragnhild Gulbrandsen scored the 500th goal in the history of the Women’s World Cup, and Kristine Lilly became the first and to date only player to play in five Women’s World Cups.