As great as the US Women’s National Team from the 1999 World Cup was, I have always felt that they were propped up at the expense of the 1991 team, who have been largely forgotten despite (1) being the pioneers, and (2) having many of the same players as the 1999 team. The 1991 team won the first Women’s World Cup (which at the time was not called a World Cup, and matches were only 80 minutes long), but that feels like a footnote now, especially in commemorations of the 1999 team. Perhaps because video footage is rare or perhaps because very few media outlets covered it, the 1991 victory has largely faded.
It’s a shame too because the 1991 World Cup was where America’s greatest player was at her peak. Michelle Akers was widely considered the best in the world at that point and was the top scorer at the tournament (although teammate Carin Jennings won the Golden Ball). Time has not been kind to Akers’s legacy even though she was with the US Women’s National Team since the beginning, and there is a very strong case to be made that she is the greatest female player of all time. In Jere Longman’s book The Girls of Summer, it is very clear that the US Team considered her their best player–as did the Chinese team who were somewhat intimidated by her. There is also a story about Akers being asked to step on the bus of the German National Men’s Team (the defending world champions); when she got on their bus, they gave her a round of applause.
What Akers lacked was media exposure, which is probably why she is generally not mentioned in the debate of greatest ever, which is limited to Mia Hamm and Marta.* By the time the women’s team came to national attention in 1996, Akers was no longer at the height of her powers both because of age and her struggle with chronic fatigue syndrome. In the World Cup final, she played not as a striker but rather a holding midfielder, a less glamorous, but extremely important position. Akers shut down Sun Wen, China’s greatest attacking threat, and it was not until Akers left the field that China could really attack. In the media however, she was overlooked in favor of Hamm, the world’s most prolific scorer.
In a way, Akers is a lot like Alfredo Di Stefano. It is hard to say Di Stefano is underrated given (1) how many players consider him one of the greatest, (2) that he practically built football in Colombia, and (3) that the European Cup was successful in large part because of him. But it is equally fair to say that the world never got to see his prime. There is little if any available footage of his pre-European career in Argentina and Colombia. He never played in a World Cup for a variety of reasons. Although he led Real Madrid to five consecutive European Cup titles between 1956 and 1960, in 1958, the world found its first superstar in young Pele. In 1962, Eusebio’s Benfica beat Di Stefano’s Madrid in the European Cup final. The torch was passed; the new generation had taken over.
Michelle Akers’s story runs along parallel lines. Although she was brilliant, the world never saw her in her prime. How many people have even seen the 1991 final? (I have.) How much footage is there of her matches before 1996? Hamm, like Pele, was a telegenic, prolific scorer whose image benefited tremendously from television. Marta, like Maradona or Messi, is a wildly gifted player who does things with the ball that no one else can. There are plenty of highlight reels and YouTube videos featuring Marta.
Michelle Akers never had that, and yet she was arguably the greatest of them all. It is why I was very glad to see this post. Hopefully there will be many more as people become more interested in the women’s game and its history.
* Also left out of the discussion: Sun Wen, who along with Akers was named co-Player of the Century, and Heidi Mohr, who in 1999 was named Europe’s Footballer of the Century. Others who are left out include Birgit Prinz and Homare Sawa, the only two players besides Marta and Hamm to win a FIFA Player of the Year award. They are just the tip of the iceberg. Someone really needs to write a history book about women’s football on the lines of The Ball is Round.