The 10 Greatest Moments in FIFA Women’s World Cup history
Get ready to go through a monumental list of goals, games, and miracles, because these are the 10 most memorable moments in Women’s World Cup history.
The Women's World Cup is still a relatively young tradition, but it already has a rich history of champions, memorable goals, and stunning moments for fans to revisit as they follow the current 2023 tournament.
That history features some tremendous individual efforts, last-gasp miracles, and multiple victories by the U.S. women that have had a lasting effect on soccer’s popularity in North America. With the 2023 U.S. Women’s National Team pursuing the World Cup’s very first three-peat in Australia and New Zealand, it’s a good time to dive into the archives to relive some of the best moments in Women’s World Cup history.
Women’s World Cup History
The 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup is the tournament’s ninth installment and the first to include a field of 32 teams, which reflects this event’s dramatic growth over the past 32 years.
The inaugural tournament in 1991 had a field of just 12 teams that played 80-minute games. The competition eventually grew to include 24 teams in 2019, when the U.S. squad claimed its second straight championship.
The USWNT is the most successful team in Women’s World Cup history, winning four of the first eight titles and finishing at least third in the other four. The 2023 edition of the team now has a chance to make history in Australia and New Zealand by becoming the first nation to win three consecutive World Cup titles in either the men’s or women’s tournament.
Ranking the Top 10 Greatest Moments in FIFA Women’s World Cup History
- USA wins the inaugural World Cup in 1991
The history of the Women’s World Cup dates back to 1991, when 12 teams came together in China for the first tournament. At that time, the women were not permitted to use the “World Cup” trademark, so the competition was officially called the “First FIFA World Championship for Women's Football for the M&M's Cup.” It was named after the M&Ms candy, since the tournament was sponsored by its manufacturer, Mars, Inc.
The Americans were dominant during the group stage, beating Sweden, Brazil, and Japan. They continued their impressive run in the quarterfinals, routing Taiwan 7-0 behind five goals from Michelle Akers.
The USWNT maintained its excellent play in the semifinal, where it defeated Germany 5-2. Akers was once again brilliant in the final, scoring both goals in a 2-1 triumph over Norway. The Americans became World Cup champions for the first time, setting the tone that made them a force to be reckoned with in future competitions.
- Amandine Henry's goal vs. Mexico in 2015
The 2015 French national team lost its second group-stage game to Colombia in disappointing fashion, forcing France to come up with a positive result from its group-stage finale vs. Mexico in order to reach the knockout rounds.
The French came out of the gate like gangbusters -- surging to a 3-0 lead within 13 minutes and reasserting their dominance over the group in the process. Late in the second half, France was enjoying a comfortable 4-0 lead when French midfielder Amandine Henry received the ball roughly 35 yards out and skillfully rolled it out of her feet.
Fearless in her approach, Henry confidently unleashed a thunderous long strike, directing the ball with precision into the top right corner. The sheer power behind her shot left Mexico’s goalkeeper stunned as the ball soared beyond her outstretched hand. On its own merits, this might be the best goal ever scored in a Women’s World Cup tournament. It was simply that great.
- Kristine Lilly’s goal-line heroics in 1999
The 1999 Women’s World Cup final took place at the iconic Rose Bowl Stadium in Pasadena, Calif., giving the Americans a chance to win their second World Cup on home soil if they could get past China.
The game was extremely tight during regular time, and it ended up in a penalty shootout. However, it never would have gotten that far had it not been for Kristine Lilly.
One of the most famous women’s soccer stars and the most-capped player in the game’s history, Lilly positioned herself on the near post for an incoming corner kick. The in-swinging cross floated into the box and was met with a powerful header by a Chinese player who rose high over the USA defenders. The keeper was beaten, but Lilly managed to fire it off the line with a powerful header that kept the USWNT’s dream alive.
The Americans would go on to win the game on penalties, and Lilly continued to thrive in a monumental, 354-game international career that spanned more than two decades.
- Carli Lloyd’s redemptive hat trick in the 2015 final
The 2011 Women’s World Cup final was a heartbreaker for the U.S. team, which fell one penalty shootout short of winning the championship. Carli Lloyd was among the American players who missed their penalty kicks under pressure.
Four years later, the USWNT rebounded and was better than ever on its way to the final and a rematch against the defending champions from Japan. This time around, there would be no need for a penalty shootout. The USWNT made sure of that by taking a 4-0 lead within the first 15 minutes of game time.
Lloyd scored three of those first four goals, showcasing her brilliance. There was a particularly magical moment when she cleverly lobbed a shot over the Japanese goalkeeper from the midfield line to complete her hat trick. That stretched the lead to 4-0 in a game the U.S. went on to win 5-2 for its third World Cup crown.
Lloyd more than made up for her 2011 penalty miss and erased any memories of previous World Cup anguish that still lingered in her mind. The 2015 tournament gave the Americans all that they had hoped for four years earlier, and American women’s soccer fans had reason to celebrate once again.
- Marta’s moment of magic vs USA in 2007
Brazilian soccer legend Marta holds the record for most career Women’s World Cup goals – having scored a total of 17 times over five tournaments. The greatest of her goals came against the U.S. during a 2007 quarterfinal game that saw her South American squad embarrass the USWNT 4-0.
Marta scored two of those goals, and one was a total masterpiece. The Brazilian icon received a pass on the bounce with her back to the goal and U.S. defender Tina Ellertson right on her heels. Sensing her opponent's presence, Marta skillfully flicked the ball around her and swiftly changed her own direction to collect it on the other side within the penalty area.
After beating another defender, Marta rolled the ball onto her right foot and then struck it under the grasp of U.S. keeper Briana Scurry. Having sent the Americans home, Brazil made it all the way to the 2007 final, where Marta’s team came up short against a German team that won its second straight championship.
- The USWNT goes back-to-back in 2019
The 2019 Women’s World Cup tournament in France saw the Americans defend their title in emphatic style. This was likely the most talented U.S. squad to date, and the team cruised through several of its games en route to yet another tournament final.
In their group-stage opener, the Americans beat Thailand 13-0 -- a game in which Alex Morgan scored five goals. That rout was followed by a 3-0 victory over Chile and a 2-0 win over Sweden. The USA finished group-stage play having outscored opponents 18-0.
Playing in win-or-go-home situations, the U.S. took down one European team after another -- defeating Spain, France, and England before meeting the Netherlands in the final. The Dutch had won the European Cup in 2017, so the eagerly anticipated title game pitted the reigning world champions against the reigning European champs.
At the 60-minute mark, the USWNT took a 1-0 lead on a Megan Rapinoe penalty kick, and less than 10 minutes later, Rose Lavelle doubled the Americans’ advantage. When the final whistle blew, the USWNT was a back-to-back champion, having successfully defended its 2015 title.
Related: The US women's national soccer team have been on top of the world for quite some time. These are the 10 most memorable moments in USWNT World Cup history.
- The 2003 World Cup final Golden Goal
The Golden Goal (sudden-death) system was used to decide matches that went into extra time before penalty shootouts would be needed to decide a winner. Although it was scrapped after the men's Euro 2004 tournament, the Golden Goal format had a moment of glory during the 2003 Women's World Cup final.
The rule stated that a goal in extra time would immediately end the game – instead of allowing it to continue until time expired. The rule was applied to all knockout-round games at the 2003 Women's World Cup.
The 2003 final, played at the Home Depot Center just outside Los Angeles, pitted Germany against Sweden. The Germans entered the tournament as a European powerhouse, having won the previous three European Cups, and they would go on to win three more in a row after the 2003 World Cup.
Their challengers, the Swedes, had a top-tier women’s soccer program of their own. Not surprisingly, the final was tied 1-1 when the full-time whistle blew.
In extra time, with penalties looming should neither team score, a German free kick from deep on the right-hand side was floated into the penalty area and met by defender Nia Kunzer, who leapt above her marker and fired a powerful header into the back of the net. Under sudden-death rules, the game was immediately over, and Germany celebrated its Women’s World Cup championship.
This game holds one of the more unique Women’s World Cup records, since it was the only final decided by a Golden Goal. With the rule no longer in effect, it's pretty unlikely to ever happen again, so this record will likely stand for quite some time.
- Japan fights back twice to force penalty thriller vs. USA
The 2011 Women's World Cup final was an absolute thriller, as the USA took the lead twice, but Japan fought back each time.
With the game still scoreless, Abby Wambach hit the bar with an excellent strike that would have broken the deadlock, and minutes later Alex Morgan was denied by the woodwork, too. The USWNT kept coming and eventually took a 1-0 lead on a goal by Morgan with 21 minutes left in the second half.
That was enough time for Japan to come back and tie the score. With less than 10 minutes remaining, the U.S. was unable to clear a ball bouncing around inside its penalty area. That enabled Japan’s Aya Miyama to tie the score with a goal that prompted extra time.
In the extra period, Alex Morgan sent a fiery cross from the byline to Wambach, who headed it home for a 2-1 U.S lead. Japan, however, came back once again just 13 minutes later -- this time with a goal from captain Homare Sawa in the 116th minute. An epic game would have to be decided by penalties, and this time it was Japan's turn to win a championship.
The U.S. missed its first three penalty kicks. When Japan’s Saki Kumagai put her shot beyond Hope Solo, Japan won the World Cup to become its first champions from Asia.
- Abby Wambach’s last-gasp goal vs Brazil in 2011
The USWNT almost never made it to the 2011 World Cup final. They had been tied 1-1 with Brazil through 90 minutes of their quarterfinal matchup. When Brazilian star Marta scored in the opening minutes of extra time, the Americans suddenly found themselves chasing the game.
As the extra-time minutes ticked away, the U.S. women fought as hard as they could but were unable to break down Brazil to get the goal they so desperately needed. That was, of course, until the 122nd minute when the Americans converted what was undoubtedly the game’s final chance to score.
After the ball was desperately pushed forward from the U.S. half of the field, it found its way to Megan Rapinoe on the left side. Rapinoe delivered a beautiful early cross to the far post, perfectly timed to reach Wambach for a header. When the goalkeeper missed a play on the ball, Wambach seized the opportunity to drive it into the back of the net, tying the game at 2-2.
Wambach, who rose above every player on that field in the game’s biggest moment, is arguably the best women’s soccer player of her generation. The stadium erupted in celebration after the U.S. team escaped the jaws of defeat. The Americans would go on to score all five of their penalty kicks to eliminate Brazil and reach the semifinals.
- Penalty shootout at the Rose Bowl in 1999
The 1999 World Cup final was an incredible moment in time for women’s soccer. The United States was hosting the tournament for the first time, offering a rare opportunity to spark American interest in the sport. The tournament gave the women’s game more U.S. coverage, marketing and broadcasting support than it had ever known.
The USWNT battled through Germany and Brazil in the knockout stages to reach the final, where the Americans met China, which had routed defending champion Norway 5-0 in the semifinals.
The final was extremely tense, and the teams played a very even match in front of a sellout crowd at the scenic Rose Bowl Stadium in Pasadena, Calif. The game’s regulation 90 minutes came and went, and no goals were scored in extra time, either. That forced a penalty shootout to determine the champion.
The teams took turns converting their penalty kicks until U.S. goalkeeper Briana Scurry saved China’s third attempt by Liu Ying to give her team the advantage. Since China had taken the shootout’s first shot, and the Americans had scored on each of their first four shots, the fifth and final U.S. penalty kick had a chance to be the winner. The pressure was on Brandi Chastain, as the hopes of an entire nation fell on shoulders.
Chastain stepped up, fired a left-foot strike into the top corner, and whipped off her shirt to twirl it around her head. She then fell to her knees as her teammates flew from the midfield line to celebrate with her. A stadium packed with American fans went crazy. That moment -- that penalty kick by Chastain -- remains one of the most iconic in all of U.S. soccer history.
Parameters for Ranking
These top 10 Women’s World Cup moments have been ranked based on the overall “wow” factor of the moment itself, regardless of whether it involved a single goal or a championship victory.
- The 10 biggest comebacks in Women's World Cup history
- The 10 greatest games Women's World Cup games in history
- The 10 biggest upsets in Women's World Cup history
- Top 10 Women's World Cup teams of all time
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