We are now officially 50 days away from the 2023 Women’s World Cup and this is poised to be the biggest edition ever. The competition will expand to 32 teams, its biggest number yet, and the growth of women’s soccer around the world means we also have more viable title contenders than ever before. The U.S. has won the previous two tournaments, but it feels like the timing is right for a first-time champion, like England, France, Sweden or even hosts Australia.
This means that the 2023 tournament has all the makings to be a very memorable Women’s World Cup this summer. So, on the occasion of 50 days out, it seems fitting to look back at the most memorable moments in Women’s World Cup history so far.
You’ll notice that this list features the U.S. women’s national team a lot. There are good reasons for that — with four wins, the U.S. has claimed half of all Women’s World Cup trophies ever offered and has featured prominently over the years. But the author of this list also wrote a book about the history of the U.S. women’s national team called “The National Team,” so this list may look different than what you’d find elsewhere around the world.
With that caveat out of the way, here we go!
10. The USWNT wins the first-ever Women’s World Cup (1991)
To say that FIFA initially had low expectations for the Women’s World Cup is putting it mildly. The first Women’s World Cup wasn’t even called that at the time — FIFA was too worried about cheapening the “World Cup” brand, so they actually dubbed it the “1st FIFA World Championship for Women’s Football for the M&M’s Cup.” Rolls off the tongue, doesn’t it?
As if that wasn’t enough, FIFA made the games 80 minutes instead of 90 minutes — another hint of what FIFA thought about women playing soccer. There were no big broadcast deals in place, either — when the U.S. eventually won the tournament, pretty much no one in the United States could actually watch it live because it wasn’t on television and the internet wasn’t a thing yet.
But hey, the tournament happened, and we can now watch clips that FIFA posts on YouTube (with electronic dance music playing over them, for some reason). FIFA now retroactively calls it the first Women’s World Cup, and although not many people can say they remember experiencing it live, it’s still memorable and worth inclusion here.
9. Disastrous VAR experiment turns tense in England-Cameroon clash (2019)
When FIFA decided to introduce VAR (video-assisted refereeing) to the Women’s World Cup for the first time four years ago, many people applauded it. VAR had been used at the men’s tournament the year prior, and the technology is intended to make the game more fair.
There was one problem: FIFA made the decision to implement VAR only three months before the tournament, and the referees who would be officiating the tournament didn’t have much time to use the new technology in real games beforehand. That was on top of changes FIFA made to the soccer’s rules only days before the tournament started.
The result? Referee decisions that were exceedingly harsh at best and utterly confusing at worst, which at times distracted from the actual competition. Referees had access to video replays, but didn’t receive enough training or practice, and so they began applying new standards to the game that players had never seen.
There were so many instances where VAR determined goalkeepers left their lines too early on penalties that FIFA’s rule-making body issued new guidance halfway through the tournament that VAR shouldn’t be used during penalty shootouts. It didn’t help Scotland though, who were sent home after a controversial VAR-prompted penalty retake.
MORE VAR DRAMA! ????
— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) June 19, 2019
The growing pains of adding VAR became most apparent in England’s round-of-16 match against a Cameroon side that nearly walked off during the game. First, England had Ellen White‘s goal ruled offside due to Nikita Parris being in a clear offside position, but VAR overturned the call, ruling that Parris wasn’t involved in the play, which incensed Cameroon players. Then Cameroon’s Ajara Nchout scored a goal that initially stood only for VAR to overturn it, judging her offside by the slimmest of margins — hardly a “clear and obvious” error.
Cameroon players, who could see the VAR replays on the video board in the stadium and gestured toward it, protested and at times refused to return to playing, delaying the game. At points, it almost looked like they were going to quit and manager Alain Djeumfa had to console his players.
The match did eventually finish with England winning 3-0, but in the aftermath the Cameroonian team reportedly suggested the referee had wanted England to win, while the British team was outraged by Cameroon’s reactions. England manager Phil Neville admonished his opponents, opening his post-match press conference: “I sat through 90 minutes of football there and felt ashamed. I’m proud of my own players’ performances and behavior under circumstances that I’ve never seen on a football field before.”
At least going into this summer’s tournament, referees will have had plenty of practice with VAR.
8. Kelly Smith’s once-in-a-lifetime goal celebrations (2007)
The night before forward Kelly Smith was due to make her first-ever World Cup appearance in England’s World Cup opener against Japan, she hatched a plan.
“The night before, I laid in my bed, closed my eyes, and imagined myself playing in the opening game against Japan, and I thought, if I do score, I’m going to take my boot off and kiss it because no one has ever done that before,” Smith explained a few years ago. “…It was just an original celebration.”
So that’s what she did. In the 81st minute, she dribbled her way through a couple Japanese defenders and muscled one off to slip the ball into the net with her left foot, promptly removing her scoring cleat and kissing it several times. Two minutes later, Smith scored again, this time with her right foot, so she took both cleats off and kissed them both.
“The second goal celebration was not planned. I actually got into quite a bit of trouble after the game by my head coach Hope Powell,” Smith recalled. “I got a slap on the wrist and was told to never do that celebration again, so that was a once-off and never happened again.”
Smith scored twice more at the 2007 tournament, and her once-in-a-lifetime celebrations became synonymous with her illustrious career for the Lionesses. She retired in 2015 as England’s all-time leading goal-scorer, until Ellen White surpassed her in 2021.
7. A golden goal decides the Women’s World Cup a last, and only, time (2003)
There’s something about the so-called “golden goal” that feels exceptionally cruel. The way it worked was that once a game moved into extra time, the first team to score won — matches would end as soon as that ball crossed the line, depriving the losing team of a chance to wage a comeback.
In the 2003 Women’s World Cup final, favorites Germany took on underdogs Sweden, who surprised everyone by scoring first on a well-placed Hanna Ljungberg shot just before halftime. Germany returned fire quickly after the break with a Maren Meinert shot, and neither side could find the breakthrough before the match moved into extra time.
With sudden death looming in the eighth minute of extra time, Renate Lingor stepped up for a free kick and defender Nia Künzer, a late substitute, was among the German players in the box. She rose up, somehow beat the defender man-marking her, and sent the ball soaring into the back of the net.
The goal looks far more convincing than it apparently felt, with Künzer telling FIFA years later: “I was confused at first and didn’t know what had happened. I couldn’t understand it because my header wasn’t even that powerful. But two or three seconds later the first couple of teammates embraced me and then the penny dropped that we were world champions.”
???? #OnThisDay in 2003
— FIFA Women’s World Cup (@FIFAWWC) October 12, 2019
With that, Germany won their first Women’s World Cup, cementing the team as a powerhouse in the sport after finishing as runners-up in the 1995 tournament. But for Künzer, she went down in history as the last player to score a golden goal in World Cup history, and the only player to score a golden goal in a World Cup final, men’s or women’s, as FIFA eliminated the rule in 2004.
6. Rapinoe takes on the World Cup field and the president of the United States — and wins (2019)
This one is perhaps more of a series of moments more than a singular moment, but anyone looking back at the 2019 Women’s World Cup will remember it as Megan Rapinoe‘s tournament.
In the days before the tournament even started, she had more attention on her than ever before after a months-old comment of hers went viral where she said she’d decline to go to Donald Trump’s White House if the U.S. team won the World Cup again. Trump took to Twitter to publicly feud with her, and his supporters made her their enemy to root against, leading to Rapinoe being asked about the spat constantly by the media during the World Cup.
She apparently didn’t let it affect her. In the USA’s tournament opener, they beat Thailand, 13-0 — the largest win in Women’s World Cup history, a moment worthy of being on this list in and of itself — with Rapinoe scoring once. In the round of 16, she coolly scored the USA’s all-important first goal in a tight match against Spain, but it was against hosts France in the quarterfinal that Rapinoe would make her indelible mark on the 2019 tournament.
In just the fifth minute of a much-hyped, top-billed clash in Paris, Rapinoe scored directly off a free kick and debuted a goal celebration that quickly became iconic: She paused, feet together, arms up in a statue-esque pose, seemingly imitating something you’d see at the Louvre. In the second half, she scored again for what would be the eventual game-winner. In the final against the Netherlands, she scored first and did the statue pose again, which became the lasting image of the USA’s World Cup win.
As Rapinoe told ESPN after the tournament, the celebration was directed at Trump and her detractors: “It wasn’t my celebration, personally — it wasn’t just for me. It was that you and nobody will take our joy. You won’t take our passion. You won’t rob this from us. You won’t take our happiness. We’re going to stand up with a smile, with our full chest exposed and put it all out there. This is what we want the world to be. This is the kind of openness, vulnerability, passion, and unbridled joy we want in the world. I felt like I was doing it with everyone and for everyone.”
5. Carli Lloyd’s brazen hat trick in a World Cup final (2015)
Have you ever played a video game and set it to the easiest mode so you could score at will? That’s pretty much what the 2015 Women’s World Cup final looked like.
Carli Lloyd was already having a pretty good tournament by that point. After initially being limited as a co-defensive midfielder through the first four games, some yellow card suspensions and tactical changes from U.S. coach Jill Ellis freed Lloyd up in the later knockout rounds to play more as a roaming striker. By the time the U.S. reached the final against Japan, she was in fine form — but no one could’ve expected what she’d do next.
In the third minute, the Americans earned a corner kick and set up for a set piece designed by then-U.S. assistant coach Tony Gustavsson (now Australia’s head coach). Lloyd stood near the center circle, seemingly away from the play, and Megan Rapinoe sent her cross into the box: a low, skipping ball along the grass. Lloyd darted from the center circle to the near post where she tapped it in.
Two minutes later, almost the same thing happened: a corner kick and a low skipping ball, only this time Julie Ertz was in the ball’s path and flicked it straight behind her with a back-heel. The ball went to Lloyd, who again fired it in.
But the pièce de résistance was Lloyd’s third goal. Lloyd got the ball in the USA’s half, flicked the ball around a Japanese defender toward the center line, and then launched the ball some 50 yards. Goalkeeper Ayumi Kaihori had been caught way out of goal, and Lloyd scored perhaps the most audacious goal ever seen in a World Cup final.
The match ended with the U.S. winning 5-2 and Lloyd scoring three goals, but she thought she could’ve scored one more. “I visualized playing in the World Cup final and visualized scoring four goals,” Lloyd said afterward. Well, maybe scoring from the center line can count as two?
4. USWNT overcomes terrible refereeing with latest-ever equalizer (2011)
Non-Americans might roll their eyes at this being No. 4 on the list, but look: memorable moments are subjective, and this is definitely one of the weirdest matches in Women’s World Cup history. Abby Wambach’s thrilling equalizer — the latest-ever goal in World Cup history, men’s or women’s — in and of itself might sell you on this belonging at No. 4, but let’s set the scene.
In this must-win knockout game between the U.S. and Brazil, the soccer gods seemed to be conspiring against the Americans. After the U.S. got off to a 1-0 start, U.S. defender Rachel Buehler was controversially red-carded after following a Marta run into the box where they both lunged at the ball and crashed to the ground together. Her nickname was “the Buehldozer,” sure, but she had never received a red card in her life.
U.S. coach Pia Sundhage said in the book the “National Team” that she initially thought the red card was given to Marta for diving. Per the laws of the game at the time, such a red card was a double whammy: in addition to the U.S. losing a player, Brazil was also given a penalty kick.
Cristiane stepped up to the spot and U.S. goalkeeper Hope Solo guessed correctly, diving to her left to bat the shot away. As the Americans celebrated, though, the referee blew her whistle, judging that they had entered the penalty box before Cristiane struck it and ordered the kick to be retaken.
It was a shocking, harsh call. If any encroachment had occurred — replays show it was very close — it didn’t change the course of what happened after Solo made the well-earned save. The Americans were furious, and Solo was yellow-carded for dissent. Marta stepped up for the retake, but Solo couldn’t save two in a row.
Score leveled, the game went to extra time, and Brazil took the lead in the 92nd minute again through controversial circumstances: Marta’s finish on the goal was sensational, facing away from goal and somehow flicking it inside the far post, but the assist came from an offside position, which the referees missed.
As everything seemed to conspire against the Americans, they got more desperate, throwing numbers forward trying to make something — anything — happen. In the 122nd minute, Megan Rapinoe launched a ball from just beyond the halfway line into the box. Abby Wambach rose into the air at the same time as Brazil goalkeeper Andréia, but Wambach’s head got to the ball before Andréia’s hands.
— FIFA Women’s World Cup (@FIFAWWC) May 5, 2019
“Oh, can you believe this?!” ESPN announcer Ian Darke shouted at the top of his lungs to American viewers through their TV sets. “Abby Wambach has saved the USA’s life in this World Cup!” Chills. The match went to penalties and the USA advanced to the semifinals. This game was only a quarterfinal, but it was partly responsible for the USWNT’s resurgence in popular culture.
3. A bizarre coaching decision, a masterclass from Marta, and a USWNT exile (2007)
It may be difficult to remember a time when the U.S. women’s national team wasn’t riding high as the reigning World Cup champion, but there have been some rocky tournaments for the Americans — none rockier than the 2007 edition.
Things started to unravel for the U.S. before their semifinal against Brazil even started. Head coach Greg Ryan bizarrely opted to bench starting goalkeeper Hope Solo in favor of backup Briana Scurry, based in part of Scurry’s excellent historical track record against the Brazil team. The only problem was Scurry hadn’t played for the U.S. in three months, while Solo was well-drilled and match-sharp.
Within 20 minutes of the game, a miscommunication along the U.S. back line led to an own goal, putting Brazil in control. From there, Marta scored twice and a red card reduced the U.S. to 10 players as the Brazilians eventually won 4-0 in the USA’s largest loss in Women’s World Cup history. “It’s fair to say that was one of our worst games in the history of the program,” former U.S. winger Heather O’Reilly said in the book “The National Team.”
As bad as it was for the U.S., Brazil was having a blast. Marta danced on the ball and ruthlessly toyed with the American back line — it was a sight to behold from one of the game’s all-time greatest players. Marta had played in the 2003 World Cup, but she announced herself to the world in this one, eventually winning the tournament’s Golden Ball and Golden Boot for her sensational performances, including against the United States.
Hope Solo’s post-game interview after the USWNT lost the 2007 World Cup semifinal to Brazil, which was posted on ESPN’s website, sparked controversy.
But the most memorable part happened immediately after the game. As the players walked through the unavoidable mixed zone filled with media, a reporter asked Solo how she felt about not playing. Solo was blunt in her assessment: “It was the wrong decision, and I think anyone who knows anything about the game knows that. There’s no doubt in my mind I would have made those saves.” She added: “It doesn’t matter what somebody did in an Olympic gold-medal game three years ago.”
Before the modern day, where a video clip “going viral” is something that seems to happen every day, the clip of Solo’s comment on ESPN’s website really spread like wildfire — and it especially spread throughout the U.S. squad. Solo was effectively kicked off the team after most of her teammates ostracized her for crossing the line of publicly criticizing a teammate. She eventually was brought back in the fold and Ryan was fired but, well, you could write a whole book about what happened there, or at least a couple chapters — ahem.
2. After devastating earthquake and tsunami, Japan triumphs (2011)
There are plenty of moments from the Women’s World Cup that are memorable on sporting merits, but this one transcends sports entirely.
In 2011, Japan was hit with a devastating earthquake and tsunami that led to a death toll estimated to be as high as 20,000. The earthquake was one of the most powerful ever recorded in human history, and the ensuing tsunami displaced hundreds of thousands of people from their homes and led to the nuclear disaster at the power plant in Fukushima.
When the Japanese women’s national team, nicknamed Nadeshiko, embarked on the Women’s World Cup only three months later, expectations weren’t very high. After all, Japan had only gotten as far as the group stage in the previous three Women’s World Cups and weren’t remotely considered favorites going into it.
But Japan surprised everyone with their slick tiki-taka ball movement and possession, and their organized, disciplined style of play made them difficult to break down. Back in Japan, people rallied around the team, finding respite and taking pride in the performances of the Nadeshiko. During the tournament, Japan coach Norio Sasaki even showed images of the devastation back home to players during team meetings to remind them that they were playing for more than themselves.
In the final, Japan came up against a determined U.S. side that dominated early on with Alex Morgan scoring first in her debut World Cup. It went back and forth until Homare Sawa scored a thrilling last-gasp equalizer in extra time — an audacious effort with the outside of her foot. Japan prevailed on penalty kicks, and the players unfurled a sign in English that read: “To our friends around the world — thank you for your support.” Japan became the first team from Asia to win a World Cup, men’s or women’s.
Japan goalkeeper Ayumi Kaihori later said: “We played that tournament not only for ourselves. We felt we had not only the support of Japan, but also the whole world.”
1. Brandi Chastain’s kick seen ’round the world and her famous sports bra (1999)
Could the top moment on this list really be anything else?
In front of a record crowd of more than 90,000 fans at the Rose Bowl in California, Brandi Chastain scored the deciding penalty kick to lift the U.S. over China in the 1999 Women’s World Cup. Chastain’s goal celebration — swinging her shirt around her head in her sports bra, as her teammates rushed her — remains iconic. It is the moment the U.S. women’s national team was ushered into the mainstream of pop culture and, in turn, the Women’s World Cup earned a massive boost as well.
In truth, the 1999 final may not have made this list on sporting merits. The game ended 0-0 after full time and extra time — it was mostly a slog until the penalty kick shootout. But the 1999 tournament had already sparked a huge turning point for the Women’s World Cup as an event. FIFA initially expected small crowds and wanted to put the games in small stadiums, but U.S. organizers had a bigger, more optimistic vision for the tournament and pushed for huge NFL stadiums as host venues. Americans responded — a Women’s World Cup attendance record had already been set by the opening game, and the buzz kept growing as the tournament continued.
Players on the U.S. women’s national team were, for the first time ever, becoming household names, and winning the World Cup would’ve sealed it. Chastain’s kick did that, but then when she ripped off her jersey, she created an image that would be seen around the world and forever linked to the Women’s World Cup. As Chastain explained in “The National Team,” that moment became a phenomenon and followed her around for years — Chastain couldn’t do anything else in her career without being asked about it.
“Never before had a women’s sporting event garnered that many fans in one location or around the world watching,” Chastain said in the book. “So, it makes sense that would be a lead question or a follow‑up question. I always reminded myself: That question allows me the opportunity to walk through the door, answer the question, and then give more information about women’s soccer than I had ever been offered before.”
And here we are, still talking about it. The growth and success of the Women’s World Cup owes a lot to this moment, and its legacy continues.