Heidi Store had never been so completely surrounded, and yet she was struck by how isolated she felt. 

Standing in the middle of a packed Tianhe Stadium in Guangzhou, the Norwegian central midfielder looked to her right and saw her childhood friend, right-sided midfielder Liv Straedet.

Hailing from Raade, a tiny town south of Oslo, the two women had known each other since birth. They started playing the game together with the boys who lived on their street and rose up the ranks before entering the national team at the same time.

Straedet had been a reassuring figure for Store throughout her career. There to her right — an outlet ball, a calming face, a friend. At that moment, though, Store could see Straedet's mouth moving, but couldn't hear a word she was saying as 55,000 cheering Chinese fans drowned her out.

It was 12 June 1988 and the 24 year old looked around and took in the scene unfurling around her. Beyond Straedet were her teammates interspersed with players from Norway's fierce rivals Sweden and then, of course, there was the crowd.

Before arriving in China neither team had experienced crowds bigger than around 1,000 people; now they were playing in front of a packed house for the sixth time in twelve days. For many it was the realisation of a dream they'd never fully believed they'd experience — the final of the first official women's international tournament and the pilot event for an eventual World Cup.

A couple of years before that 1988 final, a Women's World Cup was just an idea and ideas can be fragile things — especially when they're being pushed back by years of prejudice and misconceptions. Women's football was a fragmented sport. In Taiwan, players enjoyed almost full-time fully funded careers while in Australia the national team struggled to get anything other than second-hand men's kits to wear during games.

This schism extended into the game's administration. At Fifa, where women's football was finally starting to gain traction, two factions were fighting over the future of the game. The cause for women's football was led by football associations pushing for a World Cup in the belief that only the recognition that would come with an official Fifa tournament could lift the game towards professionalism. The doubters promoted questionable initiatives such as women playing shorter games with a smaller sized ball than the standard size five used by the men.

Watching a presentation from an official Fifa doctor at a seminar in Sweden, Heidi Store experienced that reality first hand. "The first time I heard the discussion about the number four or number five ball I was at a seminar with my head coach Even Pellerud in Sweden," said Store. "There was a doctor saying girls were so small and tiny they couldn't use a number five ball."

Store is tall. She looks like someone built to dominate a football pitch. "Her nickname in our team was 'Lurch', because she was so tall," said the former Australia midfielder Moya Dodd. "Someone's got to get Lurch on the corners! Who's going to get Lurch?"

Pellerud is almost a full head shorter than Store and he wasn't happy at what he'd just heard. "He grabbed my shoulder and he raced me up [to the doctor]," said Store. "Both of us are standing there next to each other and he says, 'Please sir, can you repeat that question?'"

"We thought it was a ridiculous idea," said the former USA international Carin Gabarra of the suggestion women should play shorter games with a smaller ball.

The response from players was almost universal. "I just remember anytime that came up we were so mad," said Joan McEachern, who used to play in midfield for Canada. "It's just so insulting. We would just get mad."

It was in that environment that the notion of a women's World Cup started to form and in which Fifa decided to host a trial event, what the then president João Havelange called a "World Tournament for Women", in China. 

One morning the letters arrived. 18 of them dropped into letterboxes across the country. They were addressed to each member of the Australia national women's team and came from the federation's CEO, Heather Reid. "We would always get news by letter," said Dodd. "If you got something in the post from Heather (Reid) you thought, 'Oh, get this one open, something exciting inside.'"

And this letter wouldn't disappoint: an invitation to represent Australia at the first official women's tournament. "We were just completely excited," said Dodd. "The tournaments we went to then were ones where you never quite knew who was going to be there. You'd hear the Italians are coming or the Germans are coming and you'd think let's hope it's the full national team, but sometimes it wasn't. Sometimes it was a state side or a club side and you'd play whoever you could play. 

"It had been basically a bunch of friendlies or self-organised tournaments with no official status on the global scale. To move from that to a world where you're having a Fifa world tournament was hugely exciting. We knew that was the turning point, we knew that was the beginning of an era. We knew that was the greatest opportunity probably most of us had ever had in football."

But the opportunity came at a cost: AU$800 (around £350 given exchange rates at the time) per player — a significant sum for an amateur footballer in 1988 to have to find. 

In late May, after a five-day training camp in Sydney, the Matildas began their 24-hour journey to China. The importance of the adventure they were embarking upon was reflected in the clothes the players were wearing.

"We got our first travel or formal outfits ever," remembers the midfielder Julie Murray. "It was a skirt and jacket. I'd never had one before. None of them fit. Pretty much up until the morning that we were leaving people were sewing and putting safety pins in our skirts — I had to roll mine over at the top."

According to the team's post-tournament report, the quick adjustments worked. "Also impressive was the travelling uniform, which not only looked good en route, but also made a pleasant change to tracksuits when we attended an official function," it reads. "There were of course some problems with the fit and the shirt was not ideal, but certainly the uniform was well received and supported." 

After stopping in Hong Kong, the Australians boarded a state-run Chinese airline plane that "shuddered a lot" for the last leg of their journey. "The seats were quite close together," Dodd said. "There were a couple of larger American tourists who were on the flight as well and they couldn't sit on their seats, they couldn't fit in. I remember they had to kneel on their seats facing the rear with the seatbelts around the back of their knees for take-off and landing because that was the only way they were going to fit in the seats."

There might have been issues with the travel and uniforms, but the accommodation in Guangzhou was beyond reproach. Sitting on the banks of the Pearl River, the luxurious 28-storey White Swan has seen visitors that include US presidents and Queen Elizabeth II and housed most of the teams at the start of tournament.

Amid the opulence of the White Swan the teams escaped from the city's thick heat and reflected on a growing sense of pressure, not just to perform for themselves and their countries, but for the game in general. "We knew that we were representing our country, but we also thought we were representing women's football," said McEachern. "Because a good showing at that tournament would mean there would be a World Cup. That was our understanding and that's how we viewed it."

As the Canadian team arrived at Tianhe Stadium for the tournament's opening game the first thing they noticed were the bats circling above. With the opening ceremony taking place on the pitch, the Canadians were forced to find a clear patch of ground outside the stadium to warm up. "It was dark because there were no lights and there were bats flying around," McEachern said. "You could actually hear these bats flying over your head and it was kind of hard to concentrate. But then we walked into the stadium.

"I have the picture of the starting XI [before kick-off] and there's one person who's just the smiliest, happiest person, so she was smiling and the rest of us look like we're walking to our execution. We were just terrified. The stadium was full. None of them were cheering for us.

"The Chinese won 2-0 and we were never really in that game and we were nervous. But we knew where the ball was by the noise the crowd made. Every time they made one of these 50-yard long balls in behind our defence the whole crowd would go 'Ohhhhhhh' and we knew to turn and run to our net."

The tournament also offered a fresh challenge for coaching staffs — after years of playing against the same teams from their region over and over again, they now had to prepare to face nations from the other side of the world that they'd never encountered before — something made harder by the fact that it was rare to be able to scout teams using videos.

The Australians had to be resourceful in the lead-up to their first game against one of the tournament favourites, Brazil. "The intelligence we had was based on one of our coaches sneaking off, watching them train and saying they were playing a 4-2-4 formation," says Dodd.

The Australian coaches coupled this information with their belief only the slowest and least talented Brazilians played at the back to formulate their tactical approach. "We had to be able to defend and defend for long periods against four strikers, but [the coaches] felt with a fast transition and a counter attack we would have a chance of scoring," said Dodd.

And so it would prove. During the game Janine Riddington found herself through on goal and scooped the ball over the onrushing Brazilian goalkeeper to put the Australians 1-0 up. "I think scoring actually just floored us," said Murray. "Holy shmoly, we just scored! I would have instantly assumed Brazil were one of the best women's teams in the world. So to score against the best team in the world from what I imagined, I don't think there was any way up from there."

"We had to soak up a lot of pressure," said Dodd. "Back then we were all just playing state club football. So your week in, week out football was at a level of city-based football really. So to go from that to a sweltering stadium in China with 25,000 people in it, playing against Brazil and to be able to lift yourself to the standard, that was what was really heroic about it. I remember coming on as a substitute and we were leading 1-0 and coming on as a left-back. Playing on the left wasn't my usual position and certainly not left-back. So that was a character-building moment to come on when you're leading 1-0 against Brazil and be thinking, 'OK, we need to be still winning this game when I come off,' and thank God we did. I wasn't sure if the bigger emotion was relief or disbelief.

"After we'd beaten Brazil I remember we all wanted somehow contact home and say, 'Guess what? We won, we beat Brazil 1-0.' We weren't sure what reporting had gone home and who knew. So at this hotel you had to book a phone call and they would call you back in your room when the call was on. So they might call you back in an hour or six hours and they might call you back at three in the morning with your phone call back to Australia."

At a time when women's football struggled to get any mention in the Australian papers, it was understandable the odds of people back home finding out about their victory were low. Yet in the days after the match a telegram arrived: a congratulatory message from the minister of sport.

With four Olympic gold medals and two World Cup titles, the USA have dominated women's football over the last 22 years but in 1988, while competitive, the Americans were still trying to bridge the gap between themselves and the Scandinavian nations. A 5-2 win over Japan in their first game was followed by draws against Sweden and Czechoslovakia before Norway sent them home by beating them 1-0 in the quarter-finals. 

"Support," said Gabarra when asked what the difference was between this side and the team that just a few years later would start its period of success. "US Soccer supported us, US Soccer enabled us to have more and more training camps together. We didn't have fans [in 1988]. The team was not well known at all because we never played in the US. We always played abroad. So nobody knew we had a team or what we were doing."

With a squad that included the future World Cup winners Mia Hamm, Julie Foudy, Kristine Lilly, Michelle Akers and Brandi Chastain, that would soon change. Brazil and China were the next big nations to fall as they lost their semi-finals, meaning Sweden and Norway, the two teams who made up what was arguably international women's football's first big rivalry, would face off in the final.

They had a huge advantage in terms of financial and professional support. "The players got paid," said Store. "If I had to leave my job for a week or two the federation would pay my salary. They would cover my costs not only for travel and lodging, but for being away from my work. That was a fantastic situation at that time for women's football in Norway. If you needed to practise in the morning you had a discussion with your employer and tried to make a solution where you can go to practice in the morning, go to work after that and then go to practice in the evening again. We practised twice a day with our clubs. It makes it easier, much easier."

Gabarra played against Norway both in the 1988 quarter-final and in the final of the inaugural World Cup three years later, which the Americans won. "You could tell [Norway had more support], because they played together they were fit, they knew how to play soccer, they played like a team," said Gabarra.

So, for the Norwegian players coming into the tournament final, in the most important game they'd ever played, the financial security, the backing of their employers and their federation's support would help make the difference in a 1-0 win. "Norway and Sweden have been fighting and quarrelling for years and at that time Sweden had been a better team than the Norwegian team," said Store. "Norway won over Sweden for the first time in 1987 so this was the second time. That was huge for us as Norwegian players to beat them in what we thought of as the World Cup final at that time."

After they lifted the trophy Store and her teammates went back to their hotel. There was no partying, no drinking. They went to bed and the next day flew home for another new experience. "We had a reception at the airport when we arrived with media and everything," Store recalled. "That was very unusual for a female football player to have these receptions with media and people from the federation and everything. So then you realise you've been a part of something special."

BC Place lights up the sky on a freezing cold Vancouver night. It's 27 January 2012 and in a couple hours Canada will have walked off the pitch having claimed a 3-1 win over Mexico to qualify for the 2012 London Olympics. On the concourse outside the stadium around a dozen women are gathering. They greet each other like old friends meeting up to reminisce. Someone's brought a Canadian flag along and they all pose for pictures with it. 

Around them the crowd continues to build, moving past the group and into the stadium oblivious to the fact they are passing some of the Canada's greatest ever players. Among them is Joan McEachern and after a while she heads up to her seat to watch the game. As she takes in the record-breaking crowd, she can't help but think to herself, "We helped build this".

"The World Cup, the U17s, the Olympics — you don't get that overnight," said McEachern thinking back on that evening in Vancouver. "There's years of struggle and fighting behind the scenes that we can't even imagine. There's players that sacrificed and struggled, coaches who sacrificed and struggled, administrators. Those accomplishments don't exist if you don't have the years of walking through the desert. So [the tournament in China] was the start of what we're seeing now 25 years later. We wouldn't be here without that. Once we got a World Cup, Fifa's saying it's a valid sport and that just opens doors."

The players who took part in the 1988 tournament were pioneers for their sport. The generation before them had fought hard to raise the profile of women's football in their countries and these players enjoyed the opportunity to take the game onto the global stage. But for many it came at a cost that went beyond the $800 the Australians had to find.

"The truth is all of us suffered career disadvantages from doing it," said Dodd. "For many players they would never ever complain about it, but the fact is most of the playing group have probably suffered some life-long economic disadvantage as a result of their participation on the field because their career advancement has suffered in some way and you never really catch that up.

"But at the same time we've got so much else from the game, no one would complain for a moment about having spent those years representing their country. There's no other feeling like putting on the jersey and going out there thinking I'm representing Australia. There is just nothing like it."

Hesterine de Reus played 44 times for the Netherlands at a time when many nations could go years without a game. She set up PSV Eindhoven's women's team and is now in charge of a talented young Australian outfit with high expectations. But back in 1988 de Reus made a tough decision — she boycotted the women's invitational tournament in protest against some of the decisions being made behind the scenes by the federation.

Since 1988, the Netherlands haven't qualified for a Women's World Cup and, without knowing it, De Reus was giving up what would be her only opportunity to play on the global stage. A sacrifice made all the more significant by the obstacles she had overcome to play football as a child."I was born in a village and there was not much to do," De Reus explained. "We could swim and play football. Playing football was for the boys and I was not allowed to join the club." 

The seven-year-old De Reus, though, refused to give up. Instead she started turning up at the training sessions, tried to act like a boy and quietly watched. "Eventually the coach invited me to play with the boys and that's what I did," she said. "After a while they discovered I was a girl and they felt sorry for me so they didn't want to tell me, 'You're not allowed to come anymore,' and I was allowed to join in the training sessions. But of course every week I would ask, 'Can I play on Saturday?' and every week they had to tell me, 'No you can't.' 

"After a year they got sick of me and they decided to let me play again. From that point on I played every week with the boys. It was illegal, because the rules said it wasn't allowed. And so I played from seven to twelve. When I played in the boys competition they knew I was a girl so they weren't friendly to me. So instead of quitting I just thought, 'You wait, you won't touch the ball anymore in the second half.' Sometimes I think how could I be so naïve? I just liked the game and I just wanted to play and I didn't understand that I couldn't because I was a girl. It didn't make sense to me."

But because of her boycott, De Reus stayed at home 25 years ago while 200 women journeyed to China and played 26 games that helped reshape the football landscape. They disproved the prejudiced beliefs many held about women's football and earned much craved recognition for their sport. It led to the 1991 World Cup, the admission of women's football into the Olympics and all the progress that has come since.

All of these players believe women's football still has a way to go, but can take heart from the fact a young girl in the Netherlands no longer needs to pretend to be a boy just to play the game she loves.