It was a warm summer day in 1978 when 12-year-old Michelle Akers saw something awful. Her favourite player on her hometown Seattle Sounders suffered a broken leg, and with the shattered bone poking through his skin, he hauled himself up to kick the ball out of bounds.
“His name was Dave Gillett,” Akers, a pioneer of the women’s game, told FIFA.com. “He was such a hard tackler. Totally uncompromising. Ferocious. Also, it helped that he was so damned good-looking.”
She did not cringe at this early glimpse of extraordinary – and extreme – determination. She did not bury her face in her hands. The incident inspired Akers, who grew up poor on the outskirts of Seattle. She is remembered now as one of the best women’s players of all-time. No one, before or since, man or woman, was more competitive or more committed.
“I had to actually learn to be less physical,” said Akers, who scored the first-ever goal for the US women’s national team in 1985 and went on to win two FIFA Women’s World Cup titles, scoring over 100 times in 153 caps. “I took risks on the field. I was competitive with myself and I’d go into tackles hard when we were up 7-0. It drove my coaches crazy.”
From midfield to the front
More than a hustle-and-bustle workhorse, Akers was blessed with a rare skill that she honed at every opportunity. “I was a born playmaker,” said the 50-year-old from her farm in Georgia, where she devotes herself to rescuing abused and abandoned horses with the same passion she showed on the pitch. “I loved to get hold of the ball and distribute it, to see the whole game in front of me.”
She pulls no punches about being turned into a striker on the eve of the inaugural Women’s World Cup in 1991. “I hated it,” she said with a chuckle. She admits to hating it even more than when she was stuck between the posts as a little girl, full of energy and courage and a primal desire to get muddy. “I had to teach myself to be a centre-forward, with all the action behind me, with my back to the goal.”
She worked with a group of local men’s players to get a grip on the position. “It’s not like it is now,” she said remembering the tough road all pioneers hoe. “We had to do a lot of the training on our own. We got together as a team only a few times a year and, if you wanted to stay in the team, you had to put in the work on your own.”
No one worked harder than Akers, eventually playing three different positions in her 15 years in a USA shirt. She quizzed coaches on which players she should be watching to learn her new trade as a striker. “Rudi Voller, Marco van Basten, Jurgen Klinsmann, Gary Lineker,” she rattled off the names. “I tried to do what I saw these guys doing. The way they turned and held the ball up, went straight for the goal.”
In 1991, Akers was 25 and part of a three-pronged attack with April Heinrichs and Carin Jennings, who went on to be voted top player at the first Women’s World Cup. “I never watched the men’s World Cup on TV or anything. I didn’t even know what it really was all about,” Akers said. “To me, it was just a tournament and I wanted to win it.”
“Our first game was against Brazil,” she remembered of her first taste on the biggest stage of all. "Some of those tackles were crazy. High and hard with studs showing. Real cheap shots. I realized then, ‘oh OK, this is serious now.’ It was a new level of competition and a real eye-opener.”
Up to the challenge
She wasted no time matching the pace. Akers got her first goal in the win over Brazil and did not stop until she scored her ninth and tenth in the final against arch-rivals Norway. Both her goals in the 2-1 win were emblematic of her varied set of skills. The first: a thundering header in off the post. The second, a winner 12 minutes from time, saw her chase a lost cause, round the goalkeeper with her left foot and slot home with her right.
“We didn’t have a sense that what we were doing was historic or anything like that,” Akers said about that fateful moment. “We didn’t know if there’d be another World Cup or not, but I understood what it was to represent my country, to wear that shirt, to feel total pride.”
When asked about the proudest moment of her long career, Akers does not point to a certain goal or her induction into the US Soccer Hall of Fame or being included in Pele’s FIFA 100 list of the best living footballers. It is not spearheading the push to get women’s soccer included in the Olympic Games or winning Olympic Gold or hoisting the World Cup or appearing on a kids cereal box. It was not even the hand-written letter she received from her girlhood hero, the snarling Scotsman Dave Gillett.
“It’s the stuff no one could really care about,” she said, with the air of dismissal common to humble folks who do extraordinary things. “The little things only I know about.”