It was arguably the biggest moment in the history of American women’s sports, and the single most memorable and reproduced image of the celebration. Brandi Chastain had just converted the penalty kick that cemented the 1999 Women’s World Cup for the United States over China. She then experienced a fit of irrational and spontaneous exuberance: perched on her knees on the turf of the Rose Bowl, the white jersey that she’d whipped off her torso clenched in one hand, screaming to the heavens as over 90, 000 fans (including President Bill Clinton and, um, me) roared their approval and her teammates and coaches raced to embrace her.
Images of Chastain’s bare midriff and black sports bra were featured on the covers of Time and Newsweek, as well as on countless newspapers. But the most indelible and reproduced picture is the full-frontal photo that appeared on the cover of the, taken by staff photographer Robert Beck.
Last year, the cover was voted the magazine’s second most iconic cover in its 60-plus year history behind only the wordless “Miracle on Ice” cover from 1980. As Team USA prepares to kick off in Canada, the photograph remains the defining image of the wildly successful run enjoyed by the women’s national team: four Olympic gold medals (1996, 2004, 2008, 2012), ten Algarve Cups (2000, 2003-5, 2007-8, 2010-11, 2013, 2015) and two World Cups (1991, 1999) in the past quarter century.
And yet, interviews with Chastain, Beck, and former national team coach Tony DiCicco suggest that history—and documenting it—is neither so simple nor so linear. Chastain was a last-second choice to take the penalty kick, and at the moment he snapped the iconic photo, Beck had just snuck his way to a spot in which he wasn’t supposed to or prepared to be.
“It was probably something that never should’ve happened, ” Beck said, “because I was in the wrong place at the right time.”
Chastain put it more cosmically: “It was fate that brought us together.”
“Brandi, can you kick them left-footed?”
Chastain, a northern California product, was a forward on the U.S. squad that won the inaugural Women’s World Cup in 1991. But injuries slowed her, and she had to change positions, first to midfielder and then to defender. When she was cut from the 1995 World Cup team, it appeared that her career might be over. “It could have ended there, ” she said. “But I decided that wasn’t going to be the end of the story.”
She rejoined the national team in time for their gold medal-winning match against China at the 1996 Olympics. Her play was suffused with what DiCicco identified as pure passion for the sport itself. “More than anyone else on that team, Brandi was the most sophisticated soccer fan, ” he said. “When we were in residency in Florida, Brandi would say, ‘Tony, can we get a couple of vans and go over to watch the [MLS’s] Tampa Bay Mutiny?’ We would get the vans, but it was her idea. She just wanted to watch top-level soccer.”
In the run-up to the 1999 World Cup, Chastain was a member of the U.S. team that traveled to Portugal for the prestigious Algarve Cup. Early in the second half of the final—again against China–Mia Hamm was dragged down in the penalty area. DiCicco chose Chastain to take the penalty kick.
As Chastain placed the ball on the spot, she found herself confronted by goalkeeper Gao Hong. “She stood right in front of the ball and kind of confronted me, like two boxers in a ring, ” Chastain said.
Her shot caromed off the top of the crossbar. China triumphed, 2-1.
“That really unnerved me, ” Chastain said of her staredown with Gao. “She had the psychological edge in that moment.”
As technically sound as Chastain was, DiCicco felt that she had gotten too predictable with her PK, always using her dominant foot and going the same way. “She always kicked it right-footed and to the goalkeeper’s right, ” he said. “I said to her, ‘Brandi, can you kick them left-footed?’ She said, ‘Yes.’ I said to her, “You gotta practice left-footed because, right now, you have to show the goalkeepers something different.’”
Chastain and her teammates were the favorites to capture the 1999 World Cup, given their experience, their victory at the Atlanta Olympics, and their home-turf advantage. But China was confident, bolstered by their wins over the Americans in Portugal and, in April, in a friendly at the Meadowlands that ended the U.S.’s 50-match home winning streak. Defending champion Norway and Germany, which would win the next two World Cups, quietly lurked.
If you had asked Robert Beck for his pick, he would have blankly admitted that he knew next to nothing about soccer. His sport was surfing, and first made his mark shooting the action in Southern California and Hawaii for Surfer Magazine. In the mid-1990s, after he was hired as a staff photographer at Sports Illustrated, his repertoire expanded to include football, basketball, MLB, the Olympics, and whatever else the magazine wanted him to shoot.
The gig was one of the most prestigious in photojournalism. Since its first issue in 1954, Henry Luce’s brainchild had put the illustrated into sports. This was particularly important in the magazine’s formative years, before televised sports became so entrenched in our living rooms. SI’s vaunted lensmen—Hy Peskin, Robert Riger, John Zimmerman, Neil Leifer, Walter Iooss Jr., Heinz Kluetmeier—were as treasured as the magazine’s staff writers, and Time Inc. cashed in on both by selling innumerable coffee-table books suffused with colorful action images and top-notch sports lit.
“We’ve had the best photographers in the business run though our company, ” Beck said. “Even now, if you wanted to put five of our guys against five guys from Getty at some event, we’d come back with better images.”
By the summer of 1999, even the soccer-challenged Beck couldn’t help but notice how the women’s national team had captured the attention of the country. The media fawned over the players, emphasizing the fact that several of them had children. (Real-life soccer moms!) They were seen as spunky exemplars of “grrrl power, ” but the wholesome, bouncy-ponytail variety.
And they were winners, unlike the men’s team. They set the tone in their opening World Cup match, a 3-0 drubbing of Denmark before a sold-out crowd of 78, 972 at Giants Stadium, with Mia Hamm drilling home the opening goal set up by Chastain’s long ball. They dispatched Nigeria, 7-1, at Soldier Field in Chicago, and then North Korea, 3-0, at Foxboro Stadium to win their group.
The competition tightened in the knockout stages. Chastain made headlines for the wrong reason in the fifth minute of the quarterfinals against Germany, when her errant pass back to goaltender Briana Scurry caused an own goal. Not a natural defender, Chastain never let the error get to her. “Brandi was such a student of the game, ” DiCicco told Sports Illustrated in 2014, “that she understood that if you’re a defender, own goals come with the territory. Still, that was a tough one.”
She made amends early in the second half, volleying the ball into the net to tie the game, and the U.S. rallied for the 3-2 victory. On July 4th, they downed Brazil, 2-0, to reach the finals. Meanwhile, China sailed through their draw, whipping Sweden, Ghana, and Australia and then handling Russia and Norway in the knockout rounds. Led by Sun Wen, their offense was clicking, with 19 goals for and only two against.
It was the finals matchup that both teams–and the public–wanted: the United States versus China; the Olympic gold medalists versus the Algarve Cup champs; white Nike uniforms against red Adidas kits; the two clear best teams in the world.