With a typically defiant statement - “I'm well known for doing nothing by half measures!" – one of the best women's footballers of all time brought down the curtain on her illustrious career this Friday lunchtime. The decision, and the moment when it was announced, will go down as a milestone in the unfolding history of the women's game.
Birgit Prinz appeared upbeat and even a little relieved after making her momentous announcement at a news conference organised at short notice by her club FFC Frankfurt. The player announced her withdrawal from club football with immediate effect. The 33-year-old, three-time FIFA World Player of the Year and Germany's all-time leading scorer, had already signalled the end of her international career.
For fully 17 years, the striker made headlines on the world's biggest stages. Prinz finished with 128 goals in 214 appearances for Germany, and scored 14 goals in five appearances at the FIFA Women's World Cup™ finals. Her phenomenal honours collection includes winners’ medals from two FIFA Women's World Cups and five UEFA Women's EUROS, and three Olympic bronze medals. With her home-town club, Prinz won the Women's UEFA Cup three times, the Bundesliga nine times, and the German Cup 10 times. In a spell with Carolina Courage, she also won the USA national title.
Mixture of relief and disappointment
Friends and observers of the Frankfurt-born goal-getter know that the expression of relief on announcing her retirement represented just one aspect of her mixed emotions. “I'm quite moved. All the uncertainty has taken it out of me a bit," she confessed, a far-from-typical show of openness from a personality who has occasionally appeared reserved and even distant.
“It would have been foolish to give up just because the World Cup took the enjoyment away,” she continued. Prinz duly returned to pre-season training with her club, “and I still really enjoy football. That was the most difficult thing about my decision, but I believe I'll have fun with football for as long as I can still run."
The FIFA Women's World Cup 2011 was a grave disappointment, both for the Germany team and for Prinz personally, prompting intense media speculation about the player's future. The host nation, led by Prinz to global triumph in 2003 and 2007, made a shock exit to eventual winners Japan in the quarter-finals. The captain herself was substituted in Germany's first two group games, and played no further active part after that. “Basically, my career has gone exceptionally well, but the end was sub-optimal," Prinz deadpanned, drawing laughter from her media audience.
Committed to career in psychology
The striker acknowledged a severe mental struggle before coming to a final decision. “It's been very, very difficult for me. I've been through phases where one day, I'd think I should carry on, but the next day, I’d think I should give up." Prinz’ global fame among followers of the women's game was always based on her commitment and sheer determination to win, plus her incomparable instinct for goals. However, she said, she ultimately came to the conclusion that “other things have become more important," and her greatest current wish was for “more space to grow into my job." Despite that statement, FFC Frankfurt general manager Siegfried Dietrich said the club still held out slim hopes of persuading Prinz to remain registered as an emergency backup player, in case of acute selection problems.
The winner of the adidas Golden Ball and Golden Boot at the FIFA Women’s World Cup 2003 completed a degree in psychology during her playing career, and is now hoping to apply that skill-set to women’s football. One option may be to work in that capacity for FFC, although Prinz is still understandably caught in two minds at the present time: “I want to emphasise that my own personal disappointment and the very disappointing outcome for the team at the World Cup basically played a minor role in my decision.”
Life goes on
Despite her reputation for calculating toughness, the undisputed figurehead of German women's football for more than a decade betrayed a certain melancholy as she left the conference suite in the Frankfurt hotel selected for Friday's media gathering. In considerably more typical fashion, her personal choice of career highlights had little to do with her array of personal honours. “It's very tough to compare one success with another, but the ones which are just a little ahead of everything else were my first game for Germany, taking part at the Sydney Olympics in 2000, which is when we joined the world elite as a team, and beating USA in the World Cup semi-finals in 2003."
For the record, Prinz first pulled on a Germany shirt in July 1994. Aged 16 at the time, she came on after 72 minutes of a meeting with Canada in Montreal, replacing then all-time leading scorer Heidi Mohr, and notching a late winner in a 2–1 victory. That was the start of an epic journey which has now come to an end, leaving in its wake countless memories and a trail of success likely to stand the test of time. In a symbolic gesture to mark a momentous occasion, Dietrich closed the news conference by presenting one of the greats of the women's game with an enormous bunch of sunflowers.