China’s charge to the Final of the FIFA Women’s World Cup in the United States in 1999 came as little surprise; just three years after winning the silver medal at the Olympic Games in Atlanta, the Steel Roses were one of the superpowers of the women’s game.
While China’s men’s team had yet to qualify for the finals of the FIFA World Cup (they would make their one and so far only appearance at Korea/Japan 2002), the country’s women had been the dominant force in Asia since the mid-1980s.
During that period, China had won seven consecutive continental titles and under coach Ma Yuanan the team was in the throes of turning that regional strength into something tangible on the global stage.
Sun Wen, Liu Ailing and goalkeeper Gao Hong had become household names across China as they made a major impact on women’s football, progressing to the final of the Olympic Games in 1996, where they lost to hosts the United States in front of a partisan crowd.
Three years later, a similar scenario was to play out at the Pasadena Rose Bowl, but not before another impressive campaign from Ma’s ever-developing squad.
A perfect record in the group stage – during which they conceded just two goals in wins over Australia, Ghana and Sweden – highlighted the strength of Ma’s team before further success over Russia in the quarter-finals and a 5-0 thrashing of former champions Norway in the last four, with Sun and Liu both scoring twice.
That run of wins set up a rematch against old rivals the United States in the Final at a sold-out Rose Bowl on a baking hot day in the mid-afternoon Californian summer sun.
Amid challenging conditions, the two teams cancelled one another out throughout normal time and 30 minutes of extra time, before the United States took the title in a penalty shootout win. Brandi Chastain famously scoring the decisive spot kick to emerge the hero.
But despite their disappointment, the Chinese still left the tournament with their heads held high, and none more so than Sun Wen, who finished the FIFA Women’s World Cup 1999 as was one of the stars of the show.
In addition to her runners-up medal, Sun took home the tournament’s Golden Boot – which she shared with Brazil’s Sissi as the pair scored seven goals each – and the Golden Ball as the FIFA Women’s World Cup’s most valuable player.
Just as importantly, however, the striker left the United States with a sense of the growing status of the women’s game around the world.
“I always remember the 1999 final,” Sun Wen told the Asian Football Confederation’s official magazine recently. “It wasn’t about the result; it was the feeling of playing in front of 90,000 spectators.
“We’ll never forget it because, as a women’s soccer player, you are very happy to see that your ability can be appreciated by the fans. The attendances in China’s league were in the hundreds, so sometimes you had doubts. This was like a dream.”