Most every American sports fan and certainly every soccer fan knows where they were on July 10, 2011.
It isn’t a date which stands out at first glance, but it was one of those rare days of patriotic rallying which can only be produced by a team wearing its country’s colors.
And it is a date which defines the remarkable career of Abby Wambach, who announced her retirement on Tuesday.
For 30 minutes, which felt somewhere closer to an eternity for the Americans on the field and in the stands in Dresden, Germany, the reign of the United States as a women’s soccer superpower looked like it was about to come crashing to a halt at the hands of rival Brazil.
And then, rising above a scrum as she has done for the past 15 years, Wambach got her head on soccer’s equivalent of a Hail Mary, heading it into the net for what was at the time the latest goal ever scored in an international soccer competition. The goal “saved the USA’s life,” as TV commentator Ian Darke put it, forcing penalty kicks – which the Americans won – and the U.S. went on to lose to Japan in the 2011 Women’s World Cup final.
That goal in the 2011 World Cup quarterfinal sparked a remarkable week in which a women’s soccer team was front-page news across the country. And it’s only fitting that Wambach should spark such a movement. She has the capability of captivating any audience through both her play and through her words.
Wambach admits to being a loudmouth, something so widely known that it was the subject of one of many of President Barack Obama’s jokes on Tuesday as the U.S. women’s national team visited the White House in honor of their World Cup title.
On Dec. 16, Wambach will play her final game at the Superdome in New Orleans, La. What lies ahead for her after that is unclear – perhaps still even to Wambach, whose career was publicly in limbo for the past three-plus months. By the sounds of it, she will need to catch up on some relaxing.
Abby Wambach is many things. She is the world’s all-time leading international goal-scorer, among both women and men, with 184. She is a two-time Olympic champion, missing the 2008 Games in the United States’ reigning three-peat after breaking her leg in the final exhibition before the team left for Beijing.
I’ve never seen an athlete more possessed by a single objective: winning a World Cup. Wambach’s desire for what she saw as the crown jewel of her legacy was almost ludicrous given her individual accolades and two Olympic gold medals. But that elusive World Cup trophy kept her hungry.
“You’re damn right I need it,” she said in May when asked if a World Cup title was needed to help define her not just as a player, but as a person.
And now Wambach is a World Cup champion. It surely didn’t happen the way she would have envisioned it through all these years. She wasn’t the one heading in that last-gasp goal or scoring a hat trick in the final. Instead, Wambach came off the bench in the final three matches of the World Cup and played only limited minutes as her teammates found a higher gear in the tournament without her.
But above all things, Abby Wambach is a leader. She always took control of a situation, on and off the field. When she wanted something, there really wasn’t any stopping her. In 2013, she grew so sick of questions about breaking Mia Hamm’s international scoring record that she just wanted to be done with it. With all respect to the record – held by her mentor and idol – she was over all the talk. She had faced questions about it every day. She was three goals shy of tying the record. Speaking to her the day prior, it was clear something special was going to happen.
So on June 20, 2013, in Harrison, N.J., Wambach went out and scored four goals in one half of soccer and ended all of that wondering. It was the kind of thing you see in one of those small-sided youth soccer games when one kid is way better than all the others. Wambach just wanted it more.
In a World Cup qualifying match in 2010, Wambach split her head open after a head-to-head collision. With blood still pouring out of her forehead like a leaking faucet, Wambach literally had her head stapled on the field. The U.S. was losing – she just had to get back in (that loss to Mexico is the Americans’ only qualifying loss in history).
Even in postgame media scrums, Wambach took control. She could talk for three minutes without ever actually being asked a question. Wambach loves to talk and she’ll always talk about her team. She’ll even talk too much on the bench. She recently described herself as “the most obnoxious bench player on the planet.”
Not everyone always agreed with Abby Wambach. In her final years of playing, she had plenty of detractors who thought that it was time for her to retire and make way for the next generation. Although her scoring production and aerial dominance dissipated in recent years, one thing remains true: There is only one Abby Wambach.
Talk to most coaches and they will tell you exactly that. Physically, it is hard for most any defender in the world to match up with Wambach.
And as one friend and colleague has said to me through the years: Wambach could convince you to go to war without knowing why. She speaks persuasively about the most inconsequential of topics. That is why for so long, this United States team was her team. Players young and old listened to her.
Just as there will never again be a Mia Hamm, who pioneered the first and very talented generation of women’s soccer players in the U.S.; just as there will never again be a Michelle Akers, the tough-as-nails FIFA co-Player of the Century who needed in-game intravenous fluids during that 1999 World Cup triumph, there will never again be another Abby Wambach. She came, she led, and she conquered.