Abby Wambach scores goals for a living. The breaking of Mia Hamm's 158-goal record was "hanging in the air" for the tall, powerful striker, and in New Jersey late last month, she surpassed it with a towering header at the back post to become the top scorer in the history of the women's game.
Scoring four times in a 5-0 win over Korea Republic, Wambach - as she’s done so many times before - rose above the crowd, with equal amounts courage, timing and technique, to break the record held by her mentor, friend and former team-mate. It is an achievement she is still trying to make sense of.
The reigning FIFA Women’s World Player of the Year and two-time Olympic champion spoke candidly to FIFA.com about her 160 international goals, her decade in the game, and the ambivalence she felt about breaking her hero’s record. She now looks ahead to “the big goal” of the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup™, the only major honour she’s yet to win, with a calm and measured focus that should keep opposition defenders shivering for the next two years.
Your team-mates seemed maybe more excited than you when the record fell.
If you break an individual record it’s because of the greatness that comes before you. I can’t really put in to words the gratitude I feel toward every team-mate I’ve played with in my life, from way back when I was a kid all the way to Megan Rapinoe, who gave me the pass to score the record-breaking goal. I have never once dribbled the whole field and scored a goal by myself. I wouldn’t even have one goal to my name if it weren’t for my team-mates.
All the same, 160 is a lot of goals. What does it feel like looking back on them?
It’s daunting to think about scoring that many. It means I’ve been around the block a few times. There was a lot of sacrifice to get to the level I am right now, but I feel so lucky.
And the big moment came in front of 20,000 fans via a classic Wambach headed goal. What were your immediate feelings when the ball went in?
It was so intense and unbelievable. Everything just came flooding into my brain: family, travel, sacrifice, team-mates. My family was there in the stadium too, and that just made it super special. Since I was four years old, my family has supported me in the game. A lot of times, they dreamed for me when I didn’t know how good I could be. They broke the record with me and I was able to celebrate with them on the field. It’s hard to put into word how special that was.
You and Mia Hamm were team-mates for about a year before her retirement. Did you talk to her after the game?
We were texting right after the game. She was, and in some ways still is, a huge mentor for me. I didn’t realise when I was young and we were playing together just how much impact and influence our relationship would end up having on me.
What does it feel like to have your name above hers in the scoring list?
When I look in the mirror I don’t see a person who’s made the kind of impact that Mia Hamm made on the game. She’s still my idol, the greatest player and the greatest team-mate. She achieved so much in so many different ways. What she did for women’s soccer can’t be measured. She was happy for me, and now I can’t wait for someone to break my record.
It almost sounds like there was a part of you that didn’t want to break it.
In a perfect world, and if I still didn’t have a World Cup to win, I would have retired the day I tied her. But she, more than anyone, taught me that there’s always another chapter to be written. It’s about the team and the game, not about me.
The women from the early years of the US national team talk a lot about a special harmony and responsibility. Is that still alive in the team?
I learned from the best, from Julie Foudy and Mia and Kristine Lilly. They really hammered home the idea that you need to leave the game in better shape than you found it. We have a real responsibility as the US women’s national team. We were a top team from the start and we have to stay there, to take it seriously.
You still see the US women as pioneers pushing the women’s game forward?
Look around and you can see the influence in teams like Japan, Germany, Sweden, Canada. There are a lot of teams who are achieving things now that they weren’t before. They are investing in the women’s game. In most of the top ten teams in the world, the players are all professional now, and that matters. Back in the day, you had players like Joy Fawcett, Mia and Julie Foudy having to wash their own jerseys.
The next FIFA Women’s World Cup, in Canada in 2015, will see the field of teams increase from 16 to 24. Is this the next step in the progression of the women’s game?
There will be eight more teams, and maybe, technically, they won’t be at the same level as the established teams, but that’s where they’ll start building. They can begin to move their way up. We are the US women’s national team, but we’re also playing for the game all over the world. I talk to other national team captains from other countries and they always ask me: ‘how did you get your federation to start treating you better?’ We have a responsibility to show the way.
Looking ahead to Canada 2015, you’ll have to get there with a new coach. How has former Australia boss Tom Sermanni fared since taking over from Pia Sundhage last year?
He brings a different expertise, a different kind of knowledge than we’ve seen before. He’s still trying to find his feet and we, as a team, are trying to fit in with his way of doing things. Back in Australia he had a different talent level, a different budget, a different everything to what he has now here in the States. There’s a learning curve on both sides.
He’s been experimenting with line-ups, formations, and playing some players in unfamiliar positions.
He’s showing us that he’s confident in his own vision, that he’s interested in raising the level. He wants to play the game beautifully, just like Pia [Sundhage] did. But he also wants to add that tenacity and toughness that American athletes are known for.
A ninth Algarve Cup title in March seems to point to things moving in the right direction.
He [Sermanni] used the Algarve Cup to assess players, and he was forward-thinking about it. He was asking big questions like: ‘Do I have players playing in the right positions?’, ‘Will my older players be able to go 90 minutes at the World Cup?’ or 'Do I need to start thinking about younger players?' He’s a big-picture guy.
The FIFA Women’s World Cup is the one big trophy you’ve yet to win. How large does 2015, likely your last FIFA World Cup, loom for you right now?
I’m not spending every second thinking about the World Cup, but it’s always in my mind when I make choices and decisions. It’s my big goal, and there’s a process, a right way to achieve it. I need to schedule myself. I’m going to be 35 in 2015, so I can’t be going a million miles an hour right now. I need to ebb and flow myself into the best shape of my life. I have to be smart about it and not stress about the what-ifs.