Football

World Cup Throwback: Brandi Chastain and the Greatest Celebration of All Time

"I think young girls demur when they do something great."

by Becky Taylor-Gill
11 June 2019, 8:33am

Photo: ZUMA / Alamy Stock Photo

What did Crag Bellamy do before he swung that imaginary golf club? Did Paul Gascoigne volley it with his left or right foot before his teammates celebrated by pretending to pour vodka down his throat? Did the goalkeeper dive the correct way seconds before Robbie Fowler sniffed the goal line as if it was a fat line of coke? You probably don't remember any of this, because some celebrations become more iconic than the goals that sparked them.

Of all the variations of football celebrations, there's one that stands out above the rest: ripping your shirt off and whipping it around your head. It's what happens when you're absolutely lost in the moment, the pure joy of it. It's the OG celebration, the one you're almost spiritually obliged to do when you score the goal that wins your country the World Cup. For men, at least. But what about women?

When American Brandi Chastain stepped up and launched the 1999 World Cup-winning penalty past the Chinese keeper, Gao Hong, she dropped to her knees and tore off her shirt, revealing her sports bra underneath, and swung it around her head before being buried in a rush of her teammates.

In that moment, it didn't really matter that she was a woman; in fact, I don't think it really mattered who she was at all, apart from a football player who had just scored the goal that won the World Cup for her country in front of over 90,000 people, on home soil. For Chastain to reach that moment – the defining moment of her career and perhaps her life – was far from breezy.

"I think, mostly, young girls demur when they do something great"

Like many girls did in the 1970s (and still do now), Chastain started playing football in her school's boys team, aged eight. In high school she helped her team win three championships, before moving up the road to Berkeley, where she played for the California Golden Bears in her first year, earning Freshman Player of the Year honours from Soccer America – a sure sign she was on her way to becoming the break-out star of US Women's Soccer.

Every great story has to have obstacles, and this is a really great story, so it's fitting that there were quite a few on the way to Chastain signing her name in the history books. She faced her first – and arguably toughest – battle after suffering a double ACL tear.

To come back from one ACL injury is difficult, sometimes impossible. To come back from two at the same time, missing two-and-a-half years at a vital time in your budding career, is absolute graft. It's blood, sweat and tears kind of stuff.

It had taken 61 years for FIFA to get their shit together and organise a Women's World Cup, after the inaugural men's World Cup in 1930. And in 1991, at the age of 23, Brandi Chastain boarded her flight to the first ever World Cup with the US Women’s National Team (UWMNT). To fight your way back from a potential career-ending injury and make it to the first Women's World Cup must be an indescribable feeling; to win it is a fairytale.

Despite already climbing the mountain of recovery to become part of the team to win the first ever FIFA Women's World Cup, there were still setbacks to come. Chastain was not named in the 1995 World Cup squad. She recalled in one interview that there was no phone call, no warning – the squad line-up was published, and her name wasn't in it.

Having experienced the highest of highs in football, it's a long way down to the low points. Chastain has talked openly about how she struggled during this time, how her family and friends were great comforts when the mountain she thought she had climbed found another peak for her to scale. As she had done before, she worked hard and fought her way back into the squad, becoming a regular in the starting 11.

By then, it was 1999 and the World Cup was being played in the USA. This time she knew her place in the squad: she wasn't the young newcomer to the team, but an experienced player, with World Cup and Olympic Gold medals to show for it.

The final was played in front of 90,000 fans in the Rose Bowl, California, the state where Brandi grew up. It was a hard fought game but no one came out on top, ending 0-0 after extra time.

Then: penalties. Overbeck. Fawcett. Lilly. Hamm. Each stepped up and scored. Only Liu Ying of China faltered, her shot saved by Briana Scurry.

It's kind of poetic, really, that Chastain was the one to step up for the fifth and final penalty. By now, you know what happened next. This moment transcends football: it’s a story about sacrifice, about pain, about joy and determination. About overcoming the seemingly impossible to reach your dreams, to do something probably beyond your absolute wildest dreams.

Speaking on her iconic celebration she said, "I think, mostly, young girls demur when they do something great." So here’s to Brandi, for inspiring a generation of girls to celebrate their achievements as loudly and boldly as they like.

You can read more from VICE's coverage of the 2019 FIFA Women's World Cup here.