Tuesday 16 November 2021, 04:00

Ma: Scoring the first Women's World Cup goal was special

  • Ma Li scored the first goal in FIFA Women's World Cup history

  • The historic strike came against eventual 1991 finalists Norway

  • Ma reflects on opening tournament, Michelle Akers rivalry and more

The goal Rose Lavelle scored in a 2-0 victory against Netherlands to conclude the FIFA Women's World Cup France 2019™ Final marked the 917th strike in the global showpiece since the inaugural event in China PR. Among all these goals scored across a total of 284 matches in eight editions, though, one remains unique - the opener notched by former China PR defender Ma Li in the tournament curtain-raiser between the hosts and Norway in the 1991 Women's World Cup.

The date was 16 November 1991 and the Tianhe Stadium in Guangzhou was the place. The hosts were pitted against the Norwegians in a historic encounter - the opening game of the first-ever Women's World Cup.

Playing on home soil and spurred on by the home supporters, the Steel Roses proved dominant from the outset. And it took them just 22 minutes to break the deadlock, China's Ma Li got herself between a series of defenders to head home the tournament’s first goal. The opener sent the home crowd into raptures and set China on the path to a memorable 4-0 victory. Over a quarter of a century has now elapsed, but the memory remains vivid for the goalscorer.

"I am proud of scoring the first Women’s World Cup goal," Ma told FIFA.com. "But I wasn't aware of this when I scored. We were so tense in the opening game and I was totally focused on my play. It was from a set-piece from the right. Wu Weiying's free-kick was so fast that all I needed to do was fling myself and nod in-almost effortlessly.

"After I scored the opening goal, I was still tense. I had no time for celebration. I couldn't even hear the ovation from the fans. I was just thinking about one thing - the opponents would hit back hard as they were desperate to earn an equaliser. I must try my best to keep our back-line tight."

Throughout her playing career Ma was known for her superb aerial ability and understandably, she has paid extra attention to headed goals scored during past FIFA Women's World Cups.

"My favourite goal was the match-winner Alex Morgan scored against England [in the 2-1 semi-final victory] at France 2019," she said. "It was such a spectacular header."

Converted footballer

Today, fans may be forgiven for thinking there was an element of luck to that milestone goal. For Ma, though, it was all about training and technical pls, as she recalled. "For us, the goal was a testament to our hard work,” she explained. “Coach Shang (Ruihua) gave some extra work for the team's three tall players; me, Niu Lijie and Zhou Yang. So we were often asked to stay after a day's work and train in leaping and heading. Usually, I was asked to get close to the goalkeeper while the other two took care of follow-ups. So we three covered the entire area in our set-piece tactics."

What Ma fails to mention is her exceptional aerial ability skills honed as a former basketball star. In fact, she had won nearly all the local basketball competitions with her middle school team, before being persuaded to switch to football. A late starter in the game, she made fast progress and thrived in her defender's role.

"I was tall (171cm) and was good at leaping, so my coaches thought the defending suited me. It didn't take me long to fit into the new game. When I jumped to head a ball into the back of net, I felt it was just like jumping and shooting at the basket," she added with a smile.

Ma Li (Left 3 at the back row) and teammates pose for a team photo ahead of the 1991 FIFA Women's World Cup China PR

Michelle Akers rivalry

Inspired by the opening triumph, China PR excelled in the group stage drawing 2-2 against Denmark and routing New Zealand 4-1 to progress. However, an unexpected 1-0 loss to Sweden in the quarter-final brought the hosts' campaign to an abrupt end.

The pain is still strongly felt by Ma. "We began as arguably the favourites so it was heart-breaking to end our campaign in such fashion. We were so sad and we cried a lot. It remains a thorn deep in my heart still today. The pain of this loss is more poignant even than that brought about by failed love.

“In spite of this, the first Women's World Cup is a great memory to cherish. I miss the team-mates, the coaches. It was such a memorable period that we spent together in preparing for the event.”

As a result, Ma and team-mates had to watch from stands as Norway, whom they defeated in the opener, went all the way through and met USA in the Final. Ma believes China PR were more than capable of sealing a place in the tournament’s ultimate game and, had they made it, would have had been well placed to defeat the Americans and claim the maiden title.

"We thought that the Americans were perhaps the only team matching us in the tournament,” Ma said. “And we were not afraid of them. We had played a series of friendlies against them in the build-up and we showed we could deal with them."

As Ma revealed, she developed something of a personal rivalry with USA captain and star striker Michelle Akers, who scored twice as her side came from behind to beat Norway 2-1 and lifted the coveted silverware. "My job was to thwart her (Akers) in these friendlies," Ma said of the FIFA Female Player of the Century.

"She was a tough player. Each time we met I was bruised all over after competing with her, and I guess she had the same. I think she was afraid of me (laugh). So who knows what would have happened had the two teams met in the Final."

Now a successful businesswoman living in Brazil, Ma has lent her weight to promoting the game at grassroots level by joining the Syndicate of football coaches- Brazil.

"Our focus is to offer free training for local youngsters as well as training of youth coaches," she said. "And in the future, we will promote the football exchange between China and Brazil.

"Football has truly become an integrated part of my life. Despite retiring from football a long time ago, I still dream of playing.

"I hope I will go to the next Women's World Cup [at Australia/New Zealand 2023] to support China team. I will take my daughter there and we will cheer for our team just as we were spurred on by fans in 1991."

Ma Li before a training session