Like midfielder Carli Lloyd, the American star of this tournament, who, wearing the captain’s armband, scored three times on Sunday. Or goalkeeper Hope Solo, who, despite her off-the-field problems, did a brilliant job between the posts. Or Julie Johnston, the plucky young defender who made a name for herself within the past month.
But you know what makes Wambach such a tremendous athlete, and what has lifted her above the sport and made her an icon? It’s the fact that she has scored more international goals than anyone in history but was fine with her teammates stealing her spotlight. She showed grace and great character in coming to grips with being a substitute.
She did score the United States’ only goal in its final group game against Nigeria. But for most of this tournament, Wambach has been at the fringes of the matches, and most likely on the edge of her seat on the bench, those blue eyes peeking in.
“Now I understand what my parents have been going through all these years,” she said of her new spot on the team bench. “But I appreciate it. I’m taking it in. I’m not upset. I accept my role.”
Sunday’s game was most likely Wambach’s final World Cup game ever. She admits that her “days are ticking” when it comes to her job as a professional soccer player. Her teammates are aware of that, too.
When Wambach entered the game in the second half, Lloyd — in a classy show of respect for the team’s longtime leader — gave her the captain’s armband to put on.
“I said, ‘No, Carli,’ but she insisted,” Wambach said.
After the game, Wambach said she couldn’t believe what had just transpired on the field in Vancouver. Then a sense of calm swept over her. Sunday’s victory was proof that, when she does retire, the team could continue to conquer without her.
“I can leave,” Wambach said. “Whether I choose to stay or not, they’ve got it.”
When she was benched for the first time at this World Cup — against Sweden during the group round — she clearly wasn’t thrilled. No one of her stature would be.
As she took the field for warm-ups for that game, she walked a bit behind the other American substitutes, who ran out ahead of her. Was it a sign of her reluctance to sit on the bench in a World Cup match for the first time since 2003 — that she was probably a little hurt? Probably, although what longtime superstar wants to run on the field with the second-stringers, all of them wearing that hideous FIFA bib?
But to her credit, Wambach, a vocal leader, hardly missed a step as the tournament proceeded from there and the games grew more important. She wasn’t sour; she didn’t mope.
Instead, her voice as the team’s biggest cheerleader only grew stronger. She remained fiery, just as she was when she led the losing battle to persuade FIFA to hold this World Cup on real grass — not turf — because the women deserved the best playing surface.
In the team’s quarterfinal against China, the score was tied at halftime when Wambach told her teammates — using R-rated language — that they needed to score within the first 10 minutes of the second half if they wanted to win. Six minutes later, Lloyd obliged.
Then, on the day of the semifinal against Germany, she told Johnston: “We’re all going to make mistakes. Don’t worry about it. We have each other’s backs.”
That was not long before Johnston fouled a German player, which led to a penalty kick that Germany’s Celia Sasic missed. Later, Wambach said that the American team had indeed been there for Johnston, that Solo had taken so much time to prepare for the penalty kick that Sasic was psyched out.
After that game, a 2-0 victory for the Americans, Wambach seemed to stand a little taller than her 5-foot-11 frame. She had become the team’s resident prophet.
It would have been nice, though, if Wambach could have seen this World Cup victory coming. That way, she wouldn’t have carried around so much angst for so many years about what she has described as a giant hole in her résumé.
Her mother, Judy, has said her daughter felt that she needed a world championship to “validate her” and for her career to be complete. Understandable, yes. Realistic, no.
Abby Wambach did not need this victory to make her career.
Even before Sunday’s victory, she was one of the top soccer players in history, with more goals than legends like Mia Hamm or Pelé. And so many more than the top-scoring American man, Landon Donovan, who, with 57 international goals, would need 126 more to match Wambach’s feat.
Her storybook moments have been many, including what might be the toughest and most breathtaking goal in American soccer history. That came in the World Cup quarterfinal in 2011, against Brazil.
In the 122nd minute of the game, in the final seconds of overtime, the Americans were a goal, and a player, down and facing elimination when Megan Rapinoe lofted a long crossing pass from about 45 yards away, aiming it toward the far side of the goal. Brazil’s goalkeeper lunged for the ball, but there was Wambach, already in midair.
She had calculated the arc of that ball perfectly and headed it directly into the goal in a moment that is still hard to fathom. The United States went on to win the game on penalty kicks, and made it to the finals, only to lose to Japan on penalty kicks.
Again and again, Wambach has said that to finish her career without a World Cup victory would be devastating. To keep that from happening, she has been all in, unafraid of how her effort might crush her if the United States were to lose.
“It’s like love,” she said.
And this time, her heart would not be broken. Instead, as she had long hoped and dreamed, she ended this World Cup in a whirlwind of joy, she and her teammates cheering and her heart bursting.
“Finally,” she said, “I’m a world champion.”
(Via The New York Times)