When USA line up at the FIFA Women’s World Cup Germany 2011™ in June, they will do so without one of the game’s true giants. Kristine Lilly, who played in all five previous editions of the tournament, emerging a champion in 1991 and 1999, announced her retirement from the sport late last week at the age of 39. Having amassed an astonishing 352 international appearances – a record in men’s and women’s football – and scored 130 goals, Lilly’s absence will reverberate not only in the American camp but also around the globe.
Lilly, married to a fire-fighter in Boston and raising a young daughter, is now dedicating herself to family life and motherhood with the same tenacity with which she marshalled the US midfield in a career spanning 24 years. The iron woman of the women’s game and twice Olympic gold medalist sat down for an exclusive chat with FIFA.com, touching on the upcoming world finals, the legacy of the USA women’s national team and her gratitude for a life spent in football.
FIFA.com: Kristine, why have you decided to call time on a career spanning three decades with the USA women’s national team?
Kristine Lilly: It was just one of those things when the time was right for me. People were wondering why I would retire with only six months to go before the next Women’s World Cup in Germany, but I really had this sense that it was the time to stop. I probably could have pushed through because I still feel good physically, but everything just got a little more difficult. I decided to give myself until the end of the year to make sure that I was rested and not just making the decision out of fatigue, and it still felt right.
Since your first cap as a high school student in 1987 to your last in November of 2010, you have a unique perspective on the development of the women’s game. How has it all changed in the time you’ve been playing?
When I started out no-one knew anything about the US national team. Now we have a pro league, there are women’s college games aired on TV and the game has a higher profile. We still need to fight for more attention and respect, but the game’s gotten better all over the world.
Has anything been lost while the game has developed?
Maybe that sense of hard work and pain we grew up with isn’t quite as intense. Nowadays players are told they’re great pretty early, and while they might well be, they need to stay hungry and keep fighting.
Do the players coming through the system in the USA have it too easy now?
No, I wouldn’t say that. This game at the highest levels isn’t easy for anyone, but they’re not fighting with everything on the line like we were. The team, the game, the country – we were working at it all the time. That said, these younger players are playing a lot more soccer than we ever did, so it’s tough in that way too. When you pull on a USA jersey, you need to be fighting.
I believe the USA is still the best. As a unit, we have the belief and the mentality to win big things. The World Cup in Germany will be a big test for us.
Having played in all five previous FIFA Women’s World Cups, do you expect to have mixed emotions when the 2011 event kicks off in Germany this summer?
I don’t think it will be hard for me because I am in such a good place right now. I do know, though, how special it is to be a part of a team playing in the World Cup. I hope the players feel that while they’re preparing and when they’re there, because the Germans will be putting everything into it.
Germany have won the last two world titles. Do you think they’ve taken over the mantle once held by USA as the best women’s team in the world?
I believe the USA is still the best, and I will always believe the USA is the best. As a unit, we have the belief and the mentality to win big things. It’s not just enough to say you’re the best; you need to go out and prove it every time you take the field. The World Cup in Germany will be a big test for us.
There is one moment that I wish we could have changed and pops up in my head every once in a while: the Olympic gold-medal game in Australia in 2000. We should have been up 4-0 against Norway in the first half, but the ball didn’t want to go in. We couldn’t have played any better against our great rival, but we ended up losing out. That one hangs on.
You’ve played with and against some of the greats in the women’s game. Does one stand out as the best?
It’s impossible to pick one. There’s Mia [Hamm], [Michelle] Akers, Julie [Foudy] and Carla Overbeck, who were all amazing team-mates and players, but also incredible leaders. I’ve played with against Maren Meinert for the national team and in Boston, and Marta is just amazing on the soccer ball, and Hege Riise of Norway.
Speaking of Marta, she just won her fifth straight FIFA Women's World Player of the Year award this week after just edging you out for the honour in 2006. Has she taken the women’s game to a new level?
She stands out individually, but Brazil hasn’t won anything yet. The USA has won as a team and so has Germany, and there’s a big difference. The things she can do on the ball are amazing, but I can’t say that she’s the best.
There have been more than a few highs in your time in the game. Can you point to a best moment?
I think just being part of the team for so long, and playing with such great players and team-mates is the best part of it. My first trip will always be special, and winning the World Cup in 1999 and the way it changed the game and women’s sports in the USA and throughout the world is also amazing. But just looking back on being a part of the USA women’s national team is really a great joy for me.