“They are the best known group of unknown women ever to captivate America,” announces Tom Brokaw at the start of The ‘99ers. Premiering 20 August on ESPN, Erin Leydon’s documentary looks back on the moment when the US women’s soccer team made themselves known—everywhere. While the precise moment might be named—July 10, 1999, when the team beat China to win the World Cup at the Rose Bowl, the metaphorical moment is broader, more resonant, even timeless. The film is structured around a gathering of eight of the players, including this film’s producer Julie Foudy, captain Carla Oberbeck, and Brandy Chastain, the one who took her shirt off. They walk back into the stadium and plop down on the turf, laughing and growing tearful over memories of their campaign, over years, to build support for the sport in the US, to achieve their own excellence as a group, and to weather their own storms, from Michelle Akers’ chronic fatigue to Mia Hamm’s reluctance to play the role of the media darling.
The movie offers a standard chronology, with dates and opponents noted as subtitles, game footage and announcers providing plot, along with interviews then and now, with the players and coach Tony DiCiccio. In addition, Foudy provides footage she took during their grand run to 1999, home-movieish scenes where they laugh and dance, ride buses and stage their own version of The Crocodile Hunter, adopting Aussie accents and wrestling a plastic lawn bear. Such footage is less instructive or even revealing than it is allusive, allowing you to imagine what the film doesn’t need to show, how difficult their task had to be. The women are goofy and gracious, their antics indications that they were young and devoted to one another at the time when they were also working hard, achieving what had never been done. When they began playing as children, they all remember, there was no such thing as women’s soccer in the US. They grew up to will it into existence.