One of the many positive aspects of the 2019 Women’s World Cup was that its global popularity and impact, which far outstripped those of earlier versions of the women’s tournament, at last allows for a genuine and meaningful comparison between men’s and women’s World Cups. They can now be considered and ranked alongside each other, just as the men’s singles and the women’s singles events in tennis (particularly its Major tournaments) collectively constitute the history of the sport.
When one compares the history of the two World Cup tournaments – the men’s, which dates back to 1930, and the women’s, which officially dates back to 1991 (although there were some earlier unofficial women’s world championships) – the full scale of the USA’s achievement in France becomes clear. That is because they are only the fourth team in the entire history of men’s and women’s football to retain the World Cup and thus become double world champions.
USA Among the Pantheon of Double World Champions
The First Double World Champions: Italy (1934 and 1938)
The first team to retain the World Cup (any World Cup, men’s or women’s) was Vittorio Pozzo’s enormously impressive Italy side, which won the World Cup on home soil in 1934 and retained it in France in 1938. Because the Italians triumphed so long ago now, and in the decade that W.H. Auden famously described as the “low dishonest” one before World War II broke out, it is easy to forget or dismiss the scale of their achievement, and yet it is genuinely historic. Although British teams did not compete in the first three World Cups, largely because they were so convinced of their own superiority that they thought there was no need for them to compete with non-British teams, Pozzo’s Azzurri were undoubtedly the finest international side in the world in the 1930s and had the World Cups to prove it.
Pozzo’s achievement is all the more impressive given that he did it with two almost completely different sides. Only two players appeared in both the 1934 and 1938 finals – the legendary midfielders (or, more accurately, inside forwards) Giuseppe Meazza and Giovanni Ferrari – as Italy twice despatched the supposed tournament favourites: the Austrian Wunderteam of Matthias Sindelar in 1934; and the first great Brazilian side, of Leonidas, in 1938. Because of Pozzo’s close association with Mussolini, who made the most of Italian footballing superiority to advance his specious argument that Italians (and Aryans in general) were superior in other respects, it is easy to overlook the achievements of Italy in the 1930s. Nevertheless, they were the first-ever double World Champions in football history.
Brazil (1958 and 1962)
The next team, male or female, to win the World Cup twice in succession was almost the polar opposite of Pozzo’s Italy in every respect. They were the great Brazilian side of the late 1950s and early 1960s, which won the World Cup in Sweden in 1958 and retained it in Chile in 1962. Where Pozzi’s Azzurri were largely unloved outside of Italy, because of their Fascist associations and what was regarded as a generally defensive style of play, Brazil 58/62 were adored around the world for their extraordinary combination of powerful team play (they pioneered the 4-4-2 formation that would dominate world football, or at least international football, until Alf Ramsey’s ‘Wingless Wonders’ won the World Cup for England in 1966) and breath-taking individual performances.
In 1958, of course, the stand-out player was the 17-year-old Pele, who scored two of Brazil’s goals in their 5-2 victory in the final against the tournament hosts, Sweden. In 1962, Pele was injured early on in the World Cup in Chile, but Brazil barely missed a beat as their other great star, Garrincha (famously described as The Rolling Stones to Pele’s Beatles) led them to another World Championship. And it is the fact that Brazil, after being knocked out in 1966 at the group stage, went on to win a third World Cup in four in Mexico in 1970, with a veteran Pele the jewel in the most glittering of footballing crowns, that made them the greatest international team of the 20th century, at least in men’s football.
Germany’s Women (2003 and 2007)
Since 1962, no other men’s team has won two World Cups in a row, although several sides have gone close, notably Argentina in 1990 and Brazil in 1998, although on those two occasions the team that contested the second World Cup final in succession was really only a shadow of the original version that had won the tournament four years previously. And prior to the USA’s triumph in France, only one other women’s team had been a double world champion, which was the Germany team that won the World Cup in 2003 and 2007.
That great German side, which achieved what its male counterpart has never achieved by winning the World Cup twice in a row, was spearheaded by a player who really deserves to be regarded as the greatest female player ever and certainly ahead of Brazil’s Marta, who is generally regarded as the greatest woman footballer in history despite never having won the World Cup. She is Birgit Prinz and her influence on the history of the Women’s World Cup is comparable to that of Pele and Maradona on the history of the men’s edition. At the very least, such was her phenomenal goal-scoring ability that she should be thought of as the ‘female Gerd Muller’ because she scored 128 goals in a staggering 214 internationals. And although Muller famously scored 68 goals in only 62 internationals, including the winner in the 1974 World Cup Final in Germany, he ‘only’ won the World Cup once, whereas Prinz won it twice, and neither of her two triumphs came on home soil, as Germany’s women first won the World Cup in the USA in 2003 and then retained it in China in 2007.
USWNT (2015 and 2019)
And so we come full circle and right up to date with the current United States Women’s National Team (USWNT). They followed up their 2015 World Cup win in Canada (which was nearly on home soil) with another dominant, trophy-winning performance in France. Although there were some gripes that they were overly negative or defensive (sometimes heading for the corner to waste time before even 90 minutes had elapsed, let alone extra time), it is unarguable that they have joined the absolute international elite of football by matching the men of Italy (1930 and 1934) and Brazil (1958 and 1962), and the women of Germany (2003 and 2007), as one of only four teams to win and then retain the greatest prize in football.
Of course, the aim now for the USA is to become the first international side, male or female, to win three World Cups in a row, which not even the legendary Brazilians of Pele et al could manage. The host nation for the 2023 Women’s World Cup will not be announced until next year. However, with so many of the relatively young USA side likely to reappear in 2023 (only its totem, Megan Rapinoe, who is now 34, is likely to have retired by then), they will have every chance of winning a third World Cup in a row. If they do, then statistically at least they will have every right to describe themselves as the greatest international side of either gender in football history.