It has been an amazing story but, like all good things, it must come to an end. Mia Hamm, the game's most recognised player, has chosen the Olympics to bid farewell to a sport that has consumed her life. The girl from Chapel Hill, North Carolina whose skills and looks brought her a celebrity status she rarely felt comfortable with, will hang up her boots and after 17 years do something for herself - start a family.

"It is just the right time for me. I need to move on," says the United States forward. "I would love to start a family - though there's no set date of when that's going to happen," she laughs, revealingly a surprisingly dry sense of humour. "If I, if both of us (husband Boston Red Sox shortstop Nomar Garciaparra), could be so blessed, that would be wonderful."

While some would urge her to retain the Hamm name, surely nobody would begrudge the darling of American soccer time for herself.

Burden and bounty
When she was handed the United States number 9 jersey many summers ago, the teenager could not have realised how much it would weigh. But despite the sudden pressure thrust upon her shoulders as the lone star of a developing sport, her commitment to the game has been enormous.

Mia, whose passion for the game was born mingling with the Fiorentina tifosi and watching the divine skills of Roberto Baggio, had, like her Italian idol, initially shunned the spotlight. But with time and the knowledge that the particular women's soccer public needed an idol, a goddess, a role model to follow and adore, she reluctantly embraced it.

"Don't get me wrong I appreciate the opportunities I've been given in the U.S.," she adds suddenly serious. "But the uneasiness is that people expect you to be so different and you always feel that you let them down when you are not. People say 'what are YOU doing at the grocery store'. I think should I not be here?"

 

Mia Hamm (9) waves to fans after beating Canada 3-1 in their FIFA 2003 Women's World Cup third place match, in Carson, CA 11 October 2003.
(AFP)
Robyn BECK
Along the path to sporting riches, she has won two FIFA World Cups, an Olympic Gold, two FIFA World Player awards and countless other accolades. And unlike any of her team-mates, she has earned vast financial rewards with a building bearing her name erected alongside one next to Tiger Woods.

Guilt and empathy
However Mia has never been corrupted by the price of fame. She is the face that launched a million posters, but she remains, by nature, a team player. And if there was a time she felt guilt and loneliness pulling on the number 9 shirt in the locker room, it has long since passed. She has learned to deal with it and found a true companion in her empathetic husband Nomar. Deep down, Mia just wants to be one of the girls.   

"I don't know what I'm going to do when I retire. I'm looking forward to nobody telling me to eat at 9 or 1 or 6.30," she jokes without laughing. "Once I'm done, I'll see what happens. Some people might have their lives planned out but I'm one of those people that lives day-to-day. Maybe next year I'll think about what I want to do. Right now I have a husband and a family I'd love just to spend time with. In the past 17 years I've seen my family maybe a month out of the year at a time. I have sisters having kids and want to participate in their lives too. Rather than 'saw you on TV'."

After more than 260 caps, and a world record of more than 150 goals in a rollercoaster career of sacrifice, responsibility, joy, riches and pain, the phenomenon Mia Hamm is close to arriving at football heaven or, for many, hell. She has not ruled out one last 'give' - should she be needed in resurrecting the WUSA, but for American soccer's golden child, 32 marks her own rebirth.

"It would be unbelievable to go out with the gold medal," she ends with the kind of focused stare that has seen her conquer all already - and why not one final time?