37 words that changed women’s football forever

The US women’s national team celebrating their win at the first FIFA Women’s World Cup in 1991. In the front row we see captain April Heinrichs and future superstar Mia Hamm holding the World Cup Trophy. © Phil Stephens Photography/FIFA Museum
The US women’s national team celebrating their win at the first FIFA Women’s World Cup in 1991. In the front row we see captain April Heinrichs and future superstar Mia Hamm holding the World Cup Trophy. 30 November 1991. © Phil Stephens Photography/FIFA Museum

In this week’s article from the Heritage Team at the FIFA Museum we present a selection of very special objects from April Heinrichs, the first captain of a Women’s World Cup winning team and we explain how a ground-breaking 37-word law made it all possible.

Within the showcase for the 1991 Women’s World Cup at the FIFA Museum is one of the most significant displays we have in our collection. It’s not often that we have a full kit – shirt and shorts – let alone one that was worn by a World Cup winning captain. But what makes this kit even more special is the fact that it was worn by April Heinrichs when she became the first woman to lift the World Cup. It sealed her place in footballing folklore alongside Uruguay’s José Nasazzi, 61 years after he became the first man to captain his nation to World Cup victory.

That’s not all, however. Heinrichs’ kit sits alongside her winners medal and to cap it all we also display the now retired original Women’s World Cup Trophy next to them. It’s an extraordinary gathering of hugely significant objects that help us tell the story of how women’s football took its first steps to becoming the number one female sport in the world. As we approach the 30th anniversary of the that ground-breaking World Cup it is worth examining how the victory of the USA team on that historic day in 1991 was made possible.

April Heinrichs, former captain of USA national team who won the first ever FIFA Women’s World Cup in 1991, is seen posing next to the World Cup 1991 showcase while visiting the FIFA World Football Museum in 2016.
April Heinrichs, former captain of USA national team who won the first ever FIFA Women’s World Cup in 1991, is seen posing next to the World Cup 1991 showcase while visiting the FIFA World Football Museum in 2016. On display in the showcase are the shirt and shorts worn by Heinrichs during the 1991 FIFA Women’s World Cup Final, her winners medal and the now retired first Women’s World Cup Trophy. © FIFA Museum (click to enlarge)

2022 will mark the 50th anniversary of one of the most significant laws affecting sport anywhere in the world. In 1972 the USA Federal Government enacted a 37-word clause within the Education Amendments Act called Title IX. Without Title IX, Heinrichs doubts that we would now be displaying her collection in the museum as she recalls in an exclusive interview with the FIFA Museum. “It is not a coincidence…. My path is a direct reflection of benefitting from the unintended and intended consequences of Title IX Legislation. My path paralleled that of Title IX. I’m very lucky!”

The text is simple. “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any educational program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.”

“Title IX legislation was passed in 1972 as a tool to equalize opportunities for women,” Heinrich explains. “It was intended to give women the opportunity to attend universities and receive an education, like men, and then to prepare women to go into the workplace and earn a paid position at a company or institution. The unintended consequences were that it also meant girls and women would have equal opportunities in sports through academic institutions that receive government funding, through scholarships to play sports at academic institutions, like men.”

Given that most educational establishments receive some form of federal funding – in other words money from the US central government – in addition to private, local and state funding, the system of sports scholarships so prevalent in the USA had to undergo a total transformation. In 1972 there were just 50 scholarships for women compared to 50,000 for men. In the wake of the new law female students had to be given equal access to programmes and funding.

The boom in sports scholarships for American women after 1972 transformed sport in general, but women’s football in particular. Millions of girls started playing the game in High School, just like Heinrichs did in 1978, a year after her high school team had been formed. And for the best of them there was now an outlet at university. One university in particular gained a strong reputation for women’s football – the University of North Carolina – and it was here that Heinrichs enrolled in the autumn of 1983. Eight of her team-mates at the first World Cup also came through UNC, including Mia Hamm, Kristine Lilly and Carla Overbeck, along with coach Anson Dorrance.

1991 FIFA Women’s World Cup winners medal awarded to April Heinrichs. The medal features the FIFA logo on one side and the World Cup on the reverse. | Dimensions: 5cm diameter | Manufacturer: Huguenin, Switzerland | © FIFA Museum
1991 FIFA Women’s World Cup winners medal awarded to April Heinrichs. The medal features the FIFA logo on one side and the World Cup on the reverse. | Dimensions: 5cm diameter | Manufacturer: Huguenin, Switzerland | © FIFA Museum (click to enlarge)

All of the US squad in China appreciated how lucky they were to be of a generation that had benefitted from Title IX and the advantage that this gave them over other nations, not only at the first World Cup, but at every tournament since. At the eight World Cups played to date, four have been won by the Americans, with one second place and three third place finishes. At the upcoming Tokyo Olympics, the US will be hoping to make it five gold medals in just seven tournaments. According to Heinrichs, “It would NOT have been possible without the Title IX Legislation passed by the U.S. government in an effort to provide educational and career opportunities to women.”

It’s also worth remembering the bigger picture. At the Equal Playing Field Summit, ahead of the 2019 World Cup Final in Lyon, Donna De Varona, an Olympic swimming medallist and one of the leading figures promoting women in sport, referred to a study done by accountants Ernst and Young which showed that 94 percent of women in management positions in the top 500 US companies took part in sports competition, with 50 percent having done so at university. “The link between sports opportunities available and success in later life couldn’t be clearer,” she said. “Title IX released the potential of half of the American population, not only on the playing field, but in all walks of life.”