FIFA Women’s World Cup: A Brief History

In a visual storyline, IMAGO looked at every FIFA Women's World Cup played since the first tournament was held in 1991; by highlighting how far women had come in the field in such a short period and drawing attention to women's soccer via their great effort.

The first FIFA Women’s World Cup was held in 1991, 61 years after the men’s tournament had begun. Women participated in a few informal competitions held before the official cup in countries such as China, Mexico, and Italy.  FIFA held an unofficial tournament in China in 1988 as a test to evaluate if a Women’s World Cup could be held on a worldwide scale. The conclusive outcome led FIFA to launch the official Women’s World Cup in China three years after the tournament’s initial staging. Since then, the competition has been hosted every four years.  In this visual narrative, you can see a brief history of the FIFA Women’s World Cup and how women have developed in football over the last three decades, bringing visibility and strength to women’s soccer via their efforts.

1991, the FIFA Women’s World Cup Started in China

IMAGO / Imaginechina | After defeating Norway 2-1 in Guangzhou, US players celebrate their first FIFA Women’s World Cup title. 30 November 1991, China. | A brief history of the FIFA Women’s World Cup.

In November 1991, the first-ever FIFA Women’s World Cup was held, marking a new era in women’s football. Twelve countries participated in the inaugural tournament, which began in China.

The United States won the trophy, beating Norway 2-1 in the final. For the first time in FIFA’s history, six female referees or assistant referees were chosen among the match officials. Also, the referee for the third-place match, Brazilian Claudia de Vasconcelos, made history as the first woman to referee at this level for FIFA.

1995 Sweden, The Second Step

IMAGO / TT / LeifxR Jansson | Norway’s captain Gro Espeseth celebrates winning the second FIFA Women’s World Cup. 18 June, 1995, Sweden. | A brief history of the FIFA Women’s World Cup.

At the second World Cup, 12 countries played, but this time, Norway triumphed by beating Germany 2-0 in the final match. Hege Riise from Norway won the Golden Ball, and Ann Kristin Aarones, her compatriot, won the Golden Boot in this tournament.

This World Cup served as a qualifying event for the first women’s Olympic football competition, which was held in the United States the following year.

1999 USA, Breaking and Setting the Records
imago images/ZUMA Wire

IMAGO / ZUMA Wire / Branimir Kvartuc | US midfielder Brandi Chastain celebrates scoring the winning penalty kicks goal. 10 July, 1999, California, USA. | A brief history of the FIFA Women’s World Cup.

Numerous firsts occurred during this tournament that significantly impacted the Women’s FIFA World Cup. For the first time, the tournament was played with 16 teams and in large stadiums. As a result, attendance records, media attention records, and TV viewer records were all broken.

Also, all 32 games were live-streamed on national television, and a reported 40 million people in the United States alone watched the American hosts achieve their second World Cup victory.

The final between the United States and China ended in a scoreless draw, forcing a penalty shootout, which the United States ultimately won, 5-4. In the history of the Women’s World Cup, this match stands tall among the greats.

2003 USA, A New Champion: Germany
imago images/Mary Evans

IMAGO / Allstar | Germany won the 2003 FIFA Women’s World Cup. 12 October 2003, USA. | A brief history of the FIFA Women’s World Cup.

Because of the spread of SARS in China, the games were moved to the United States again this time. But this time, Germany won the competition, defeating Sweden by a score of 2-1. Golden Ball and Golden Boot winner Birgit Prinz drove the German team to victory during this World Cup.

2007 China, The Germans Keep on Winning 
FIFA Women's World Cup: A Brief History

IMAGO / Sven Simon | Germany won the 2007 FIFA Women’s World Cup. 30 September 2007, China. | A brief history of the FIFA Women’s World Cup.

For the first time ever, Germany won the World Cup for a second straight time after defeating Brazil in the final game.

One of the most fascinating aspects of this competition was the fact that the German goalkeeper Nadine Angerer went through the whole competition without allowing a single goal.

2011 Germany, A Surprise from the Land of the Rising Sun 
imago/Kyodo News

IMAGO / Kyodo News | Japan wins Women’s World Cup by winning against USA. 17 July, 2011, Frankfurt, Germany. | A brief history of the FIFA Women’s World Cup.

Japan’s victory against the USA in the world championship final was one of the biggest surprises in women’s football, demonstrating how widespread women’s soccer has become across the world.

The outstanding player Homare Sawa, who took home the Golden Boot and Golden Ball honors for best player and top scorer, propelled the Japanese squad to victory. 

2015 Canada, The Records Have All Been Broken 

IMAGO / Xinhua | The 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup Champion, United States, celebrates with the trophy. 5 July, 2015, Vancouver, Canada. | A brief history of the FIFA Women’s World Cup.

The World Cup, which was held in Canada, elevated the competition’s history to a new stage. The United States, led by standout player Carli Lloyds, won the title for the third time. She received the Golden Ball as the best player after scoring a hat trick in the final game versus Japan. 

2019 France, Alex Morgan and Megan Rapinoe lead USA to the Fourth Title

IMAGO / USA TODAY Network / Michael Chow | Megan Rapinoe celebrates with Alex Morgan after scoring a penalty kick against the Netherlands in the FIFA Women’s World Cup final. 7 July , 2019, France. | A brief history of the FIFA Women’s World Cup.

In 2019 the USA team won the fourth title to stand out among all the teams. Alex Morgan and Megan Rapinoe had influential performances for the US team, but Rapinoe was undoubtedly a superstar during this tournament. She was the key driver behind the team’s great victory on the field and a vocal proponent of equality for everyone. 

IMAGO Collections of FIFA Women’s World Cup:

Highlights of the FIFA Women’s World Cup, archive pictures.

Image selection by Fatemeh Roshan.