After a 19-year international career, it would hardly be surprising that  Kristine Lilly is a relaxed figure when speaking to FIFA.com, just hours before the World Player Gala 2006. But what makes her story so remarkable is that she has witnessed the growth of the women's game beyond all recognition over that period and, furthermore, excelled in it.

With over 300 caps to her name, Lilly has collected two  FIFA Women's World Cup winning medals and two Olympic gold medals. Now preparing for China 2007, the 'Iron Lady' of the US midfield shows no sign that her hunger for the game she loves so dearly is diminishing.

FIFA.com: When you made your international debut in 1987, could you have believed that you still would still be going strong almost 20 years on?
Kristine Lilly:
When I first started, I was so young - everything was so new. I could never have imagined where women's soccer would go in general, let alone my career. It has been truly amazing and enjoyable, but I could not have predicted it.

How have attitudes to the women's game changed in that period?
Well, for a start, people have started to pay attention to us! That was the first big change. Now the media is giving us more attention. We've had four World Cups, three Olympic Games, so that has helped the sport gather momentum. There has been a huge growth over the past 19 years. It has been great to have been a part of it - and there is still a long way for us to go.

In your eyes, has there been a turning point?
I think there have been a few. The first was obviously the first Women's World Cup in 1991 - that was a huge start. For the US, it was the Olympic win in 1996 - a lot of our women's teams did well in that year, so it was great for our profile. But for the world, it was the 1999 World Cup. I think the world, not only the United States, saw what can be achieved when you support your women's teams, back them with money and promote the game correctly.

1999 was the event which had the first 'World Cup atmosphere' - like the men experience every four years. I think that was something that people did not believe could happen. But to be honest, we did not believe that it was going to happen, but we had a great committee, who for more than 18 months, promoted the game. A lot was put into it and we reaped the rewards. Of course, we had a storybook ending, but what people must realise is that it took a tremendous amount of hard work for the fairy tale to come true.

You made your debut against China, you scored your first goal against China and now you are going back there for the next FIFA Women's World Cup. Are you looking forward to it?
Of course. I think the next World Cup is going to be unbelievable. I know that the Chinese will do an incredible job - they did in 1991 - and I can't wait. I've been to China a lot and it is going to be great to return there on my 20th anniversary with the team. We are going there with a young team, a new team, but they have been playing well - and we have nine months now to really step-up our preparations.

The youngsters who you are playing alongside are not only coming into a game which has more investment and a higher profile, but into a game which has developed tactically. What changes have you noticed on the pitch?
The game has improved so much. The players who are coming into the team are technically better than I was when I made my debut for the US.  They have played at the various youth levels in CONCACAF and FIFA competitions - and the game is benefiting tremendously because of that. They have a lot more experience, they are more mature and I think that is a credit to the game. 

Have you been surprised with the speed of evolution?
I don't know if I have been surprised because I have been a part of it. If I was looking in from the outside, I think I would be, but I had a feeling that the game was going to grow in every single aspect, it was just a matter of time. But we are still growing - and now women's football is a lot better to watch.

On the field, how have you had to adapt your game?
I think, as I have got older, I play smarter. The game has taught me that. When I was a teenager, I just used to run and run. Now, I think 'Hey, I don't need to do that.' I pick and choose my runs - and I seem to be making good decisions! One of the things I really take pride in is my fitness and my body. As for the game itself, if I don't know my job on the pitch by now, I probably never will!

You have been running a few coaching courses - is that where you see your future lying?
Yes. I have been doing that for 10 years and I will continue that. I love teaching young kids and I would like to cover more of the country, especially the smaller states who don't get many national team players visiting them. It is important to give something back. When I was younger, I didn't have any female role models - and I think that through my example I can help them be somebody. It's a role and a responsibility that I take incredibly seriously.

What about the two players who you are up against this evening - Renate Lingor and Marta. How do you rate them as fellow professionals?
They are great - and what they are going for their country is important. When Germany won the World Cup in 2003, the profile of the women's game changed considerably and Renate is an incredible player. I have come up against her in midfield on a number of occasions and she is fantastic. Marta is only a youngster and to have already been acknowledged at such a young age is incredible.