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The 1991 Women's World Cup Final
M&Ms, The Great Gatsby, and commentators as unreliable narrators
“He smiled understandingly - much more than understandingly. It was one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it, that you may come across four or five times in life.”
The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald
The idea that the person explaining events to you might not be telling you the whole truth is a familiar one in literature. The ‘unreliable narrator’ is found throughout the canon from Mrs de Winter in Daphne du Maurier’s ‘Rebecca’ to Humbert Humbert in Vladimir Nabokov’s ‘Lolita’.
But Nick Carraway in ‘The Great Gatsby’ is one who has divided critics as to whether he counts. He is not unreliable in the sense of actively trying to manipulate the reader; instead he is somebody who seems to be naïvely taken in by his surroundings and the people within them. The quote at the top of this is taken from the first time Carraway meets Jay Gatsby at one of his parties. As the reader we are presented with his immediate perception of Gatsby but how much can we take it on face value when it is in the context of a lavish party thrown by a mysterious host?
There is a synergy here with commentators within the women’s game. It might seem strange to cast a television commentator as someone who can manipulate our perception of something that we are watching, but it is a familiar anxiety on ‘Football Twitter’, where commentators are often accused of being too perky when the poster’s team concedes or not suitably enthusiastic when they score. Whilst these points of view are clearly warped by the poster’s own biases, it reveals an awareness that a commentator is offering analysis on a match that may or may not tally with the match itself.
This is exacerbated in the women’s game where the audience does not come with the same prior knowledge that the average viewer of men’s football would. There will be a far greater proportion of people watching who are coming to women’s football for the first time - particularly in 1991, but it remains true today. Whether they are men’s football fans watching out of intrigue, or people who are taking an interest in women’s sport but do not come from a football background, the women’s football commentator is equipped with even greater power as to how they shape perceptions of the match. What’s more, those perceptions can often be crucial because they directly contribute to opinions of the game as a whole.
When it came to the 1991 Women’s World Cup, there were plenty of signs that it was not to be seen as equivalent to the men’s game. Its full title was actually “1st FIFA World Championship for Women’s Football for the M&M’s Cup”, although FIFA has since attempted to rewrite its reluctance to associate the ‘World Cup’ brand with the women’s game by ‘officially’ renaming it.
Games were only eighty minutes long - two halves of forty minutes - prompting the oft-quoted comment from American forward April Heinrichs that “they were afraid our ovaries were going to fall out if we played ninety”.1 12 teams travelled to China to participate with the country keen to put on a good show in support of their bid to host the 2000 Olympics.
The USA reached the final having steamrolled most of their opposition, beating Sweden, Brazil and Japan in the group stage, before knocking out Chinese Taipei and Germany. Norway were their opponents having overcome a 4-0 loss to hosts China in their first group game that saw them only finish second in their group. But wins against Italy and Sweden meant they made the final.
Despite this being the first ever World Cup, this final was seen as a meeting between the old heads and the young upstarts. Norway had been at the top of the women’s game for a while having won the first European Championships in 1987 and making the final in 1989 and 1991.2 They also won the FIFA Women’s Invitational in 1988, which had been a test event for a potential World Cup, and had beaten the USA in the quarter-final. The USA meanwhile had only played their first match in 1985.
The USA’s manager was Anson Dorrance who until this day heads up the incredibly successful women’s soccer programme at University of North Carolina.3 He thought they could overcome their technical deficit by eschewing the traditional 4-4-2 formation played by women’s teams across the world in favour of a 3-4-3. He combined this with an emphasis on their physicality.
Much was made of the fact that the USA did not have a women’s league but the players would have benefited from being drawn from a pool of college athletes who had grown up under Title IX. The landmark ruling in 1972 which equalised funding for men’s and women’s sports revolutionised the opportunities female athletes got at college level. Eight of the 18 player US squad were 23 and under meaning they would have only recently come out of college. But older players were forced to quit jobs in order to be able to make the tournament.4
Dorrance also had the advantage of being able to use UNC as his own personal laboratory where he could iterate on his team with a number of players who were actually part of the national team. “When I would finish an event with the US women, I would come back to UNC and say ‘Alright we had trouble with this, we had trouble with that.’ And this would be an incubation training camp for how we were going to try and solve problems in the international arena.”5
Physicality undeniably has a role in this final. The USA constantly have a large number of players converging on wherever the ball is. Dorrance emphasised pressing, saying: “When we lose the ball, we go get it. If we’ve lost the ball next to your corner flag, that’s where we’re going to hunt it. We don’t draw back and visit the bunker and twiddle our thumbs. We go out and reach out and try to grab you by the throat and squeeze the frigging air out of you. So that was our philosophy.”6 But this is not pressing in the organised manner that we would think of it now and the way the US played exposed large amounts of space, but Norway were simply not good enough to exploit it.
This is not a high quality football match. Most of the time, the two teams are absolutely leathering the ball from one end of the pitch to the other, and given the backpass rule had not yet been enacted, it gets slowed down even further.7 The whole game is very physical, in contrast to the claims today that women’s football allows the more technical elements of the game to be on show because it is not as physical as men’s football.
To what extent has the women’s game been moulded to be less physical because that was undesirable? Coverage of the unofficial World Cup in Mexico in 1971 focused on the injuries sustained by the players with the Daily Mirror describing it as ‘the gory going-ons down in Mexico’.8 Bad tackles in women’s football continue to go unpunished because of these attitudes that women’s football is not physical, despite all evidence being that historically, it has been brutal.
The USA went 1-0 up after 20 minutes in the final with Michelle Akers heading in from a Shannon Higgins free kick. Akers trying to score headers is a familiar theme of watching the USA in World Cups, although she was particularly helped out here by an atrocious Norwegian attempt at zonal marking. Norway equalised within ten minutes however, from their own set piece, as the US keeper Mary Harvey came for the ball and got nowhere near it. After bouncing off Linda Medalen, the Norwegians were level.
Throughout the second half Norway continued to be a threat from set pieces where the US were not particularly organised. The two players who stood out the most are two who went onto play even bigger roles in future World Cup finals. Hege Riise was Norway’s most creative and technical player whilst the US looked at their best when Michelle Akers dropped into midfield to help lay off the ball - a sign of things to come.
It was Akers who scored the winner as well. Just four minutes after Norway missed a free header at a corner, Akers pressed the two Norwegian centre-backs and latched onto an awful back pass which put her through one on one. She went round the goalkeeper to score and win the US the first ever Women’s World Cup. It was Akers’ 10th goal of the tournament to win the Golden Shoe award.
The overriding feeling I took from watching this match was how little commentary on women’s football has changed since 1991. I have not been able to source who was commentating on the game or for which broadcast - I watched this video of the match which has a British man commentating but I did also find this American commentary although the video quality is much lower. According to Caitlin Murray, the game was not shown on television in the US so why either of these commentaries were done is unclear, with the first televised World Cup highlights in the UK beginning in 1995.910
Whoever it is, they open the commentary with this peach of a quote:
“What the women may lack in technical sophistication, they certainly make up for in their will to win.”
From there on out it becomes a bingo card of every trope you can think of about the women’s game.
“Sometimes mistakes in the women’s game make the matches more exciting.”
“Unlike in the men’s game, there is very little feigning injury”
“Without trying to be derogatory about women’s football, the longer this game goes on, I’m sure some of the women out there will tire”
“Whilst the football isn’t entertaining…”
Concerns about the size of the pitch and the goal are also brought up, something that Emma Hayes was talking about as recently as 2021. It goes to show how these tropes have endured over the past thirty years. Comments made during broadcast might not be quite as outlandish as some of these but caveats on the game being played can still regularly be heard.
Whether it is the patronising focus on players’ off-pitch achievements or the scrambling attempts to contextualise the ‘growth’ of the game, there is often a sense that commentators feel the need to justify to the viewer why they should be watching. An inability to pronounce names correctly, or even sometimes recognise the players, only goes further to telegraph to the viewer that the person talking to them lacks interest in what is being played in front of them.
There are good and bad commentators in both the men’s and women’s game, and I am under no illusions that it is an incredibly hard job to do. But whereas within the men’s game, poor commentary is mostly just irritating, within the women’s game it subtly shapes the opinions of those watching.
I do not think commentators are actively trying to manipulate opinion of women’s football in a negative way but, like Nick Carraway, they have been taken in by the world as it has been presented to them rather than what it is or could be. A world where women’s football is different to men’s and needs to be explained as so. And so like the reader of a novel with an unreliable narrator, the viewer is left looking in the wrong direction, misled by the commentator’s unawareness of their own influence.
Wrack, S (2022) A Woman’s Game: The Rise, Fall, and Rise Again of Women’s Football
The 1991 Euros was held in July with the 1991 World Cup taking place in November
It should be noted that Dorrance and UNC were sued in 1998 by two former players who alleged he ‘sexually harassed them and caused them emotional distress’. The suits were eventually settled in 2004 and 2008. The settlement was not an ‘admission of anything beyond what Coach Dorrance [had] already apologised for’
Murray, C (2019) The National Team: The Inside Story of the Women who Changed Soccer
Theivam, K and J. Kassouf (2019) The Making of the Women’s World Cup: Defining stories from a sport’s coming of age
Wrack, S (2022) ibid.
The approach to goal kicks in this game is amazing. They bounce the ball twice and then do a skip as if they were about to throw a javelin - think Chloe Kelly’s penalty technique
Wrack, S (2022) ibid.
Murray, C (2019) ibid.
Wrack, S (2022) ibid.