FIFA Women’s World Cup history officially only dates back to 1991. But the tournament quickly became a major event in world soccer, and has delivered many memorable moments since its founding.

Early attempts at a women’s championship

While the first official Women’s World Cup didn’t occur until 1991, there were several unofficial competitions that were forerunners to today’s tournament.

The 1970 Women’s World Cup, aka the Martini & Rossi Cup, was hosted in Italy. It was put on by the Federation of Independent European Female Football. Seven nations competed in the knockout competition – England, West Germany, Denmark, Mexico, Austria, Italy, and Switzerland. Denmark would go on to be champions.

This was followed up by a 1971 World Cup in Mexico. A group stage was introduced for this edition. Denmark successfully defended their title at the Estadio Azteca in front of a reported 110,000 fans.

Despite more nations developing women’s teams in the 1970s, it wasn’t until the 1980s that a world championships were attempted again. Five invitational “Mundialito” tournaments were held in Japan (1981) and Italy (1984-86, 1988). Italy won three titles, and England captured two. The 1985 edition was the debut of the United States national team (who finished in fourth place). The USWNT would go on to finish runner-up in 1986, and third in 1988.

FIFA gets in the game

In 1988, FIFA finally organized it’s own women’s competition. Wanting to test the potential feasibility of a Women’s World Cup, the FIFA Women’s Invitation Tournament was held in China. Twelve teams were invited, with Norway defeating Sweden in the final. The event was considered a success, and led to the staging of the first official World Cup in 1991, also to be hosted by China.

The tournament was officially, and awkwardly, known as the 1st FIFA World Championship for Women’s Football for the M&M’s Cup. The competition has retroactively been given the official World Cup name.

Twelve nations qualified for the competition, with the United States going undefeated en route to their first world championship. Michelle Akers scored the USA’s two goals in their 2-1 victory over Norway in the final. The overall success of the tournament led to women’s football being included in the 1996 Summer Olympic Games (and all subsequent Olympics).

The 1995 World Cup was hosted in Sweden, and was won by neighboring Norway. 1995 saw an experiment where each team was allowed a two-minute timeout in each half. This rule was abandoned after the competition.

The USWNT enters the stratosphere

The 1999 tournament was hosted by the United States, and elevated both the national team and women’s soccer in general to new heights.

With an expanded field of 16 teams, the event set records for attendance and was incredibly successful in terms of TV ratings and public interest.

The final, held at the Rose Bowl, delivered one of the most iconic moments in soccer. Over 90,000 fans were in attendance as the USA and China played to a 0-0 draw.

The dramatic penalty shootout had only one miss – when US keeper Briana Scurry made a save in the third round. Brandi Chastain buried her PK in the fifth round, ripped off her jersey and dropped to her knees in celebration. It became a lasting image of not only the tournament, but of sports in the 20th century.

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The success of 1999 and the women’s soccer boom led to the creation of the Women’s United Soccer Association. This was the first fully professional women’s soccer league in the world. Unfortunately, the boom did not last, and the league folded in late 2003 after just three seasons – just as the USA was hosting the 2003 World Cup.

China was the original host for 2003, but due to the SARS outbreak, the US was chosen as an emergency host. The hosts would not repeat as champions however, as Germany captured their first title and became the first nation to win both the men’s and women’s World Cups.

China did get to host the 2007 tournament, which was also won by Germany. The Germans became the first team to defend their title, doing so in dominant fashion. They did not surrender a goal during the entire competition. 2007 was the last World Cup in which the USWNT did not appear in the final.

2011-2015

Soccer fever was in full swing again in the USA after the men’s dramatic heroics in South Africa 2010. The 2011 World Cup was hosted by Germany, and was the last to feature 16 teams.

The quarterfinal between Brazil and the United States in Dresden was one of the more memorable World Cup matches of all time. Marta’s two goals, (one after a dubious red card and penalty retake call, as well as a 92nd minute score), had Brazil on top 2-1 in extra time.

But at the 122′ mark, Megan Rapinoe sent in a cross that Abby Wambach headed home to tie the game. The US would go on to make all five of their penalty kicks, and Hope Solo would make a save, to complete a remarkable comeback.

The US would top France in the semifinals, but a third World Cup title would have to wait. Japan would edge out the USWNT in the final, as the US missed their first three penalties and could not recover. Japan is to date the only Asian team to win a senior World Cup.

Canada 2015 saw 24 teams in the field for the first time. It was also the first, and only, World Cup contested on artificial turf. The use of turf and not natural grass prompted a lawsuit, later withdrawn, from some of the players. Canada 2015 drew, to date, the highest total attendance of any Women’s World Cup.

The USA breezed through the knockout stage, winning the first three games by a combined score of 5-0, en route to a final rematch with Japan. At BC Place in Vancouver, the USA jumped out to a 4-0 lead by the 16th minute, including a hat trick by Carli Lloyd, and would eventually cruise to a 5-2 win.

France 2019 and Australia-New Zealand 2023

The 2019 World Cup introduced VAR to the competition, and was the last to use the 24-team format.

The USWNT rolled to a perfect 3-0-0 group F win, with no goals allowed. This included a 13-0 thrashing of Thailand in the opening match. 2-1 wins vs Spain, France, and England setup a clash with the Netherlands in the final. The US would win 2-0 to secure their fourth World Cup title and second in a row. 6 goals each from Alex Morgan and Megan Rapinoe placed them with England’s Ellen White for the most in the tournament.

FIFA received criticism for scheduling the 2019 final match on the same day as the finals of the men’s CONMEBOL Copa América and CONCACAF Gold Cup tournaments.

The focus now shifts to the 2023 World Cup, co-hosted by Australia and New Zealand. It is the first Women’s World Cup hosted by more than one nation, and the first World Cup overall hosted across multiple confederations. New Zealand is a part of the OFC, while Australia competes in the AFC.

32 teams will now compete in the women’s tournament, in a format identical to the one the men’s World Cup used from 1998-2022. The final is set for August 20th at the Sydney Olympic Stadium.

Official Women’s World Cup Results History

YearHost(s)WinnerRunner-up
1991ChinaUSANorway
1995SwedenNorwayGermany
1999USAUSAChina
2003USAGermanySweden
2007ChinaGermanyBrazil
2011GermanyJapanUSA
2015CanadaUSAJapan
2019FranceUSANetherlands
2023Australia/New ZealandTBDTBD

Only four nations have ever won an official Women’s World Cup. Will a newcomer breakthrough in 2023? Can the USWNT continue their dominance? Or will Germany, Norway or Japan add another trophy to their collection? Whatever happens, it’s sure to be another entertaining and memorable tournament.

Visit our TV schedule page for information, including all the info on when and where to watch, on the 2023 Women’s World Cup.

Photos: Imago

Guide to World Cup 2023

Here are some resources to help you get the most out of the biggest event in women's soccer!
Schedule: All the info on where and when to watch every game
TV Coverage: How to watch the games on TV
World Cup Bracket: Map out the entire tournament, from the groups to the final