While women’s football continues to be treated like a second-class citizen compared to its male counterpart in 2021, there was a day when its flagship competition didn’t even get the name it deserved, let alone the coverage.
When the first ever Women’s World Cup finals fixture took place on 16 November 1991, the two participants – host nation China and Norway – were among 12 teams playing for the M&Ms Cup. Moreover, the tournament was known as the easy-to-remember ‘First Fifa World Championship for Women’s Football for the M&Ms Cup’. Just rolls off the tongue, doesn’t it?
And it wasn’t just the World Cup name which Fifa didn’t trust the greatest female footballers on the planet with. Games lasted 80 minutes instead of 90, and there were conversations held after the tournament over whether the size-five football was suitable for the women’s game. The ridiculous compromises seemed archaic even at the time, with USA captain April Heinrichs responding to the 80-minute matches by quipping: “They were afraid our ovaries were going to fall out if we played 90.”
This was not quite the worldwide event we saw in 2019, with 1.12 billion viewers tuning in across the globe, and all the mascots, marketing and memes you could wish to see. Instead, this was Fifa giving women’s football something of a trial run, a full 61 years on from the first men’s World Cup, with free tickets given away in a bid to fill stadiums and pad out the product. Maybe they could have given it Fifa World Cup branding and the backing of the men’s game instead… just a thought.
There had been unofficial World Cup-style events in the past, with Italy hosting a seven-team competition in 1970 under the banner of the ‘Martini & Rossi Cup’, and a 1971 tournament in Mexico which saw the home side beat Argentina in front of 100,000 people in its opening match. But the 1991 gathering was the first which Fifa had put its name to… along with the other 10 words in its exhaustive title.
Ma Li scored the first goal of the World Cup era – sorry M&Ms, but that’s what we’re calling it from here on in – as China won 4-0 in the opening fixture, yet Norway got off the mat to win their remaining two group stage games and then beat Italy and Sweden in the knockout rounds to reach a final against USA on 30 November.
The US were big favourites going into the game, with Michelle Akers-Stahl having netted eight of their 23 goals in five matches on the way to the final. And she would be the matchwinner in the showpiece. Having seen Linda Medalen equalise after her first-half opener, Akers-Stahl netted a second goal two minutes from time (that’s 78, not 88 minutes, remember) to win the First Fifa World Championsh… – yeah, that – for the USA.
Thirty years on, there are still huge strides to be made in the women’s game, but with regard to the Women’s World Cup and both domestic and international arenas around the globe. But thankfully huge strides have been made since the M&Ms madness of 1991. By the second hosting of the tournament in Sweden in 1995, there was no more overly-long title, matches were 90 minutes in length, and interest generally grew throughout the tournament. It would be a sign of things to come.
It’s amazing to see how much can change in 30 years. Now the challenge is for Fifa to grow the women’s game still more in the next 30.