Golden era of US women’s football begins on home turf

Picture by Getty

Atlanta 1996 saw women's football make its debut on the Olympic programme, with eight teams taking part in the inaugural tournament. Fittingly, the host nation, were firm favourites to win gold, with Norway expected to provide their biggest challengers.

The two teams met sooner than expected in the semi-finals and served up a closely contested match that the Europeans led for much of the way thanks to an early goal from Linda Medalen. However, in the closing stages, the USA were awarded a penalty, which was converted by Michelle Akers to send the match into extra-time. The host team then clinched victory thanks to a strike from substitute Shannon MacMillan.

In the final, the Americans found themselves pitched against China. The two teams had already met once in the tournament, playing out a 0-0 draw in the group stage, but that match had carried little importance as both had already qualified for the knockout stage by that point. Now, by contrast, there was a gold medal at stake.

MacMillan continued her scoring form by putting the USA into the lead after 19 minutes, but China’s Sun Wen struck a smart equaliser which seemed to inspire her team-, and they took control of the game, pressing forward at every opportunity. But while they were dominating possession, they couldn’t find a second gold.

A so often happens in such situations, as the Chinese continued to draw a blank, the momentum gradually swung the other way. Tiffeny Milbrett made the most of a clever forward move to fire the ball past the Chinese goalkeeper and give the home team a 2-1 lead. And that was how the score remained until he end of the game meaning that the Americans were crowned the first Olympic women’s football champions.

It was to mark the start of a remarkable run for the US team. They had to settle for silver in the 2000 tournament (losing to Norway in a close-fought final), but then embarked on a winning streak that saw them capture the gold in 2004, 2008 and 2012.