With the final seconds ticking down and the Americans on the verge of their earliest exit ever from the Women’s World Cup, Abby Wambach kept waving her index finger at her teammates.
One chance, she screamed, all they needed was one chance.
When it came in the form of a left-footed cross from Megan Rapinoe, Wambach pounced. With one vicious whip of her head, she changed the course of this year’s World Cup and sparked a nationwide frenzy rarely seen for women’s sports.
Wambach was certainly at her best at the World Cup, leading the Americans to the final, where they lost to Japan on penalty kicks.
Wambach’s clutch performance at this summer’s World Cup made her the clear choice for the 2011 Female Athlete of the Year, selected by members of The Associated Press. The U.S. forward received 65 of the 214 votes cast, while teammate Hope Solo (38) was a distant second and UConn basketball star Maya Moore (35) was third.
Wambach is the first individual soccer player — man or woman — to win one of the AP’s annual sports awards, which began in 1931. The U.S. women’s team won in 1999, when their World Cup triumph at the Rose Bowl transfixed the nation.
“We, as a team, did something that no team since Mia Hamm was able to do,” Wambach told the AP. “Even the team that won the (Olympic) gold medal in 2008 wasn’t able to inspire and get people excited about women’s soccer. It goes to show you the impact drama can bring.”
Wambach’s four goals in Germany give her 13 in three World Cup appearances. That’s the most by an American, topping Michelle Akers by one, and puts her third on the all-time World Cup scoring list behind Brazil’s Marta and Germany’s Birgit Prinz. The 31-year-old ranks third on the U.S. career scoring list with 125 goals, trailing only Mia Hamm (158) and Kristine Lilly (130).
“When she’s on top of her game,” U.S. coach Pia Sundhage said, “she’s one of the best in the world.”
The U.S. has long been the dominant team in women’s soccer, winning two of the first three World Cups and all but one of the Olympic gold medals since the sport was added to the program in 1996. The Americans were so famous they could go by one name — Mia, Brandi, Foudy — and they got rock star treatment during the 1999 World Cup, playing to sold-out crowds in massive stadiums from coast to coast.
Americans grew spoiled by the group’s success, however, and were barely able to muster a yawn when the U.S. won the Olympic gold medals in 2004 and 2008. Many people in the States may not have even realized there was a World Cup going on this summer.
Then came that quarterfinal against Brazil.
Down a player for almost an hour, the Americans were less than 90 seconds from losing in overtime after squandering an early lead. But in the 122nd minute, Rapinoe lofted a cross from 30 yards and Wambach rose above the Brazilian defenders. One of the world’s best players in the air, she scored on a thunderous header, setting off pandemonium in the stadium that soon spread clear across the Atlantic Ocean.
“It just seemed surreal. Even in the moment, I was feeling like it was a dream because we were so against the ropes and everything was pointed to us going down that day,” Wambach said. “But there was something inside of us that wasn’t going to allow that to happen. We weren’t quite ready to give up.”
There are few things Americans like more than winners, especially those who wear “U-S-A” on their chests. That the U.S. women were a fierce, gritty bunch who refused to be beaten only made them more appealing, particularly in a summer when all the other news — the economy, home sales, the NFL lockout — was bleak.
By the time the U.S. beat Brazil on penalty kicks — Wambach and her teammates made all of theirs — folks who couldn’t tell a bicycle kick from a Schwinn were piling on the bandwagon. Celebrities such as Tom Hanks, Lil Wayne and Super Bowl MVP Aaron Rodgers were quick to show the Americans some love, and the women even got facetime on the Jumbotron at Yankee Stadium.
“People kind of forgot about their woes and were able to celebrate,” Wambach said.
She did her part to keep it going, heading in a corner kick for the go-ahead goal in the 79th minute of the semifinal against France. Wambach also scored in the final, giving the U.S. a 2-1 lead in the 104th minute of overtime. But Homare Sawa tied the game in the 117th, and the Americans lost 3-1 on penalty kicks.
Despite the loss, the Americans were welcomed home like champions. They had inspired the country when it needed it, and that meant as much as any trophy or title.
Almost six months later, the accolades are still coming. Wambach was named Sportswoman of the Year by the Women’s Sports Foundation, and the victory over Brazil was named the top sports accomplishment of the year in a Marist poll. The Women’s World Cup ranked 10th in the voting for AP sports story of the year.
“I’m not a person who cares much about (individual) awards, but I really appreciate you guys recognizing this team,” Wambach said. “It helps keep this sport alive, and it’s really important.”
Wambach takes her role as ambassador for the game seriously, recognizing that time in the spotlight is still rare for women’s soccer and it must be taken advantage of. She is as accommodating a star athlete as there is, happy to sign autographs, pose for pictures or do interviews. This is how the game is grown, and that, not the goals or the scoring records, is what she hopes her legacy will be.
“Hopefully when I’m long gone, this team is so good that people don’t even talk about (me),” she said. “Truthfully.”
Not that Wambach is going anywhere.
The Americans are the defending Olympic champions, and Wambach and her teammates are currently training for next month’s regional qualifying tournament. She hopes to be healthy enough to play at the 2015 World Cup in Canada, and fill that last gap in a resume as dazzling as anyone who’s ever worn the U.S. uniform.
“I have to say, of all people, I think she is one of the best role models: interacting with fans, saying good things about the game, saying good things about this country, saying good things about her teammates,” Sundhage said. “I’m very proud of the fact I’ve had the chance to coach her for so many years. It will be a highlight of my career.”