From humble beginnings: The FIFA Women's World Cup

How did we get to this point to where the FIFA Women's World Cup has grown into the premier global event in women's sports? senior writer John F. Molinaro explains.

20 years after 1st tournament, the legacy continues this summer in Germany

Brandi Chastain celebrates by taking off her jersey after scoring the winning goal in a penalty shootout for the United States against China in the 1999 FIFA Women's World Cup final. (Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press)

How times change.

In 1991, 12 teams converged in China to contest the inaugural FIFA Women's World Cup to little fanfare. The brainchild of former FIFA president Joao Havelange, the 26-game competition enjoyed modest attendance (averaging 19,615 spectators per match) but as a sporting spectacle it largely failed to capture the attention of the world's sports media.

Twenty years later the tournament features 16 teams, with journalists and broadcasters from around the world set to descend on Germany this summer, and a crowd of 71,000 fans expected to attend the Germany-Canada match in Berlin on the competition's opening day.

How did we get to this point to where the FIFA Women's World Cup has grown into the premier global event in women's sports?

Here some of the credit must be given to Havelange.

The Brazilian relied on manipulation, scheming, politicking and chicanery to rise to power in 1974 when he was elected as the head of soccer's world governing body. His 24-year reign was often described as "dictatorial" and corruption accusations dogged him during his entire tenure.

To his credit, though, Havelange also oversaw the introduction of a slew of important FIFA tournaments that we now take for granted — world championships at the under-17 and under-20 level and, most notably, the Women's World Cup.

Akers an early trendsettter

But even though the Brazilian gave them the opportunity, it was the athletes who are responsible for the rise in popularity of the Women's World Cup, putting it on the map as must-see event on the crowded international soccer calendar — and no player played a bigger initial role than Michelle Akers.

Every sporting event needs a superstar, and Akers served that role with aplomb in China. The American forward began the tournament with a modest three goals in the first round before exploding in the knockout stage with five goals in the quarter-finals against Taiwan and a hat trick versus Germany in the semifinals.

Akers left her best performance for last by netting twice — including the winner with 12 minutes left in regulation — to lift the U.S. to a 2-1 decision over Norway in the final. Her 10 goals remains a single tournament record and spurned the U.S. to a historic victory.

Akers didn't do it alone. She and fellow forwards Carin Jennings and April Heinrichs terrorized opposing defenders (they combined 20 goals in six matches) as the Americans outscored their opponents by a whopping 25-5 margin.

The U.S.'s World Cup victory marked the birth of a dynasty, one that saw a generation of American players become super stars, including Mia Hamm, Julie Foudy, Brandi Chastain and the aforementioned trio of Akers, Jennings and Heinrichs.

Norway's ascent to the throne four years later in Sweden actually started in China. The Norwegians were the surprise of the 1991 tournament, rebounding from a humiliating 4-0 loss to China by beating Italy in overtime and edging Denmark in the knockout stages before succumbing to the U.S.

Buoyed by the two-pronged attack of Hege Riise and Ann Kristin Aarones, Norway stormed through the first round with victories over Nigeria, England and Canada (making its World Cup debut) and exacted a small measure of revenge by disposing of the U.S. in the semifinals.

Riding high, the Scandinavians completed their unbeaten run in Sweden with a 2-0 win over Germany to become the first European nation to win the title.

The World Cup's watershed came in 1999.

Not only did the tournament expand to 16 teams, but it also set a pair of impressive attendance records with 1,194,215 spectators passing through the turnstiles for an average crowd of 37,319 per match.

But more importantly, it truly became a globally-recognized event, courtesy of a fairy tale ending and a memorable moment.

The U.S. and China breezed through the competition to reach the final. More than 90,000 fans filled the Rose Bowl to watch the Americans win in a penalty shootout, capped off of by  Brandi Chastain's memorable celebration where she peeled off her jersey and fell to her knees in a sports bra after scoring the winning goal.

It was an iconic image that was instantly beamed around the world, and it made the cover of Sports Illustrated. The Women's World Cup had finally broken through into the mainstream.

Canadian success in 2003

Four years after becoming the first nation to win two championships, the U.S. stepped up in a big way. The 2003 tournament was slated to take place in China, but a SARS outbreak forced FIFA to move it to the U.S.

The Americans had only four months to organize the event, but they did so with great efficiency as the 2003 event was another great success for the women's game.

After bowing out in the first round in 1995 and 1999, Canada established itself as an ascending, finishing second to Germany in the group stage and then upsetting China 1-0 in the quarter-finals thanks to a Charmaine Hooper goal.

The Canadians looked to have secured their place in the finale when Kara Lang scored in the 64th minute against Sweden in the semifinals. But the Swedes hit back with two goals in the final 11 minutes of regulation to advance.

Despite the heartbreaking setback and its loss to the U.S. in the bronze medal game, Canada, led by Lang, Hooper and Christine Sinclair, distinguished themselves with their brilliant efforts, setting up the Canadian program for future successes.

The final was a thrilling and dramatic affair, with Nia Kunzer's Golden Goal in the 98th minute against Sweden securing Germany's first championship.

The 2003 tournament was the beginning of a new era, with the Germans displacing the Americans as the dominant power in the women's game.

Four years after seeing the World Cup taken away, China hosted the tournament in 2007, welcoming the best players in the world for the second time in history.

Expectations were high that Canada could build on its final-four appearance in the U.S. and progress to the final. But despite having the most talented group of players in the team's history, Canada was eliminated in the first round after being held to a 2-2 draw by Australia in its final game.

China saw plenty of highlights: Marta's seven goals for Brazil, English striker Kelly Smith's boot-kissing celebrations, and the U.S. goalkeeping controversy involving Hope Solo and Brianna Scurry in the semifinals.

But it was the Germans, led by the incomparable Birgit Prinz, who were the class of the competition, going undefeated without conceding a single goal before upsetting Marta and Brazil 2-0 in the final.

In doing so, Germany became the first nation to repeat as champions, further underlining their position as the new queens of the pitch.

All of which brings us to 2011.

Which players will emerge as the game's new stars this summer in Germany? Will a rejuvenated Canada prove that their CONCACAF championship victory from a year ago wasn't a fluke? Can the Germans win a third in a row? Can the U.S. reassert itself as the sport's best? Or is this finally the Brazilians' time to shine?

Stay tuned.