Shannon Higgins-Cirovski won four NCAA women's soccer titles at North Carolina and the 1989 Hermann Trophy, given to the sport's best player. She assisted the legendary Michelle Akers on both of her goals in the 1991 Women's World Cup final, when the Americans first conquered the globe. She appeared in 51 games for the United States before retiring at age 23 and later being enshrined in the National Soccer Hall of Fame.
Her husband, Sasho Cirovski, the longtime coach of the Maryland men's soccer team, says she "likes to be invisible," but people with Wikipedia pages like hers do not often blend into the background, even an ocean away. So when Cirovski ordered a custom-made U.S. jersey ahead of their trip to France for the 2019 Women's World Cup, complete with his wife's playing-days nameplate (Higgins) and number (3) and an identifying addendum ("Husband of 1991 US WC Champion Shannon Higgins"), she was mortified.
"My wife, when she first saw it, said, 'You are not wearing that. I will not be anywhere around you if you wear that,'" he recalled Friday. "I said, 'Honey, I'm wearing it for two games.'"
They just so happened to be two games that could change the trajectory of the sport stateside. After a tense 2-1 win over England in the semifinals, the Americans overwhelmed the Netherlands, 2-0, on July 7 for their second straight title and fourth overall. A high-profile march to glory — there were goals galore, inspired celebrations and even some White House-related tweeting — had carried the team and its cause celebre from Lyon to the lead of newscasts the world over.
Higgins-Cirovski and her fellow '91ers, as the U.S. veterans of that inaugural Women's World Cup are known, had started a push for equality almost three decades ago. Before this summer's World Cup, the U.S. women sued their own federation, accusing U.S. Soccer of "institutionalized gender discrimination," including inequity in pay. (The two sides last month agreed to mediation.)
The team's public fight for gender equality has resonated. On Friday, a Hill-HarrisX survey found that 73% of registered American voters say the women's team deserves the same pay as the U.S. men's team, and another 17% believe they should be paid more. Higgins-Cirovski said the family's middle daughter, Karli, a recent college graduate, has been sending her Megan Rapinoe videos — of speeches, not highlights. Their eldest daughter, Hailey, now better "understands who I am," Higgins-Cirovski explained.
"Based on what's happening with this, she understands a little bit more about me and why I am as passionate about women as I am and them being treated fairly and equally," she said.
It was Higgins-Cirovski's idea to take a World Cup vacation. This one, anyway. In 2006, the Highland family traveled to Germany for the men's competition. The trip fused two of Higgins-Cirovski and Cirovski's loves: soccer and foreign travel.
They'd stayed almost two weeks in Germany; France would have to be a shorter stay. Higgins-Cirovski, the former Maryland women's coach and current director of coaching for the Bethesda Soccer Club's girls program, was tied up with work for part of the World Cup. Early on July 1, three days after the United States had knocked out host France in the quarterfinals, she took a red-eye from San Diego back home. About 5 p.m., she and Cirovski boarded a flight to France. The U.S. game was the next day; they'd secured tickets for both semifinals in Lyon six months earlier.
"We thought, 'Well, there's a good chance the U.S. will be there, so let's go ahead and book the semis and final,' " Cirovski recalled.
On game day, he proudly donned his wife's jersey. "I got several kicks up the ass on this one," he joked. "But in the end, I'm glad I did it." They took public transportation to the Stade de Lyon before the semifinal, and fans stopped Higgins-Cirovski to thank her and ask for photographs. She was happy to oblige. She also insisted that her husband "have his back to the wall" on several occasions, the embarrassment just too much.
Higgins-Cirovski had visited France before, but not like this, not as a tourist. The three times she'd been to Paris, she recalled, it was on national-team duty. With four days between the semifinals and final, she and Cirovski took an electric-bike tour of Lyon. They visited its downtown markets, sampled its cuisine. "We said no to the escargot thing," Cirovski said, laughing.
Traveling south, they spent three days in the French Riviera. They went to Cannes. Sampled Bourdeaux wines. Rode a catamaran. Swam in the Mediterranean. Savored a meal on the beach.
Then it was back to Lyon for the final. In 1999, Higgins-Cirovski had been flown to the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif., for the World Cup final. That experience, she said, "felt more personal"; she'd played with some of the women who took the field against China, and was later led onto the field with the '91ers after Brandi Chastain's iconic penalty kick.
Last Sunday, she and Cirovski were seated in the 59,000-seat stadium's 200 level — "concierge level," as she put it. "I'll take all the food and drink that I want." It was something to behold. At the end of a tournament that FIFA, world soccer's governing body, said it expected would reach 1 billion viewers for the first time, Higgins-Cirovski remembers being taken aback: by the play, by the passion, by the progress.
"It's just flabbergasting," she said. "You have this picture in your mind of what it was from when you're playing, and to know what it's turned into and to see the crowds and the people and the enthusiasm and just the general knowledge about the game and the respect that they have from men as well — because we didn't always get that back in that day — that was just mind-boggling, really. I just had to sit back and smile and say, 'This is what it should be like for females who are playing.'"