Described by former USA coach Tony DiCicco as “the best woman that has ever played the game,” Michele Akers looms large in the pantheon of women’s football. The first great star of the US women’s national team, she was named FIFA Player of the Century in 2000 and was widely recognised as the world’s best player during her illustrious 15-year international career.
Akers dominated the women’s game with her skill, size, strength, and savvy. “She was a warrior,” said former teammate and icon Mia Hamm. “She was our everything.” The bustling striker was the heart and soul for women’s soccer in America from its very beginnings. She joined the national team upon its inception in 1985, and scored the first official goal. Six years later, she was the leading scorer in the inaugural FIFA Women’s World Cup™ with ten goals in six matches, including the winner in the final against Norway in Guangzhou, China. Her five goals in a 7-0 victory over Taiwan set a World Cup record and earned her both the Silver Ball Award and the Golden Shoe, as she led the Americans to their first world championship.
When Akers went down with head and knee injuries in the opening match against China at the 1995 FIFA World Cup in Sweden, the US essentially went down with her, eventually losing out in the semi-finals to Norway. “My style was to play for the moment,” Akers says. “I would jump in and I took a lot of physical risks because I couldn’t see beyond the moment. That was my strength and my weakness. I was either going to crash or celebrate big time.” The California native was the first woman to receive FIFA’s highest honour, the Order of Merit, for her outstanding contributions to the game. But her success came at a great cost in injury and illness, and at times it seemed she spent as much time in the emergency room as the locker room. She had as many knee operations (12) as she had World Cup goals.
Diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome in 1991, Akers’ game was marked by fierce determination as she played through bone-weary exhaustion and debilitating migraines. Her locker room celebrations were often spent attached to an oxygen mask, an IV, and an EKG machine. She hung up her boots at the age of 34, prior to the Sydney Olympics of 2000, retiring as the national team’s second all-time leading scorer with 105 goals in 153 games.