Ahead of last year’s FIFA Women’s World Cup, FIFA.com polled fans on the tournament’s greatest-ever goal. It was not long before a clear winner emerged.
Abby Wambach’s effort was not, in truth, the most skilfully executed or aesthetically pleasing of the 15 shortlisted strikes. But its significance, the context in which it was scored and the impact it had across the world ensured an enduring place in supporters’ affections. “The power of that goal is amazing,” said the woman who scored it. “People tell me all the time how they remember where they were when it happened.”
Wambach herself is never likely to forget, and nor will the memory fade of the emotions that preceded and followed her historic header. They began with desperation as the striker, marooned up front with the ball at the other end, saw the 120th and 121st minutes of USA’s 2011 quarter-final against Brazil come and go. The final whistle was overdue, and the South Americans – who had humiliated Wambach and Co at the same stage of the 2007 edition – were 2-1 up and heading for the last four.
Pia Sundhage’s Stars & Stripes had taken an early lead, but the game had turned midway through the second period when Rachel van Hollebeke was sent off and conceded a penalty from which Marta – at the second attempt – equalised. When Brazil’s talisman struck again two minutes into extra time, Wambach feared the worst. “I’m thinking, ‘Well, that’s going to be that,’” she told ESPN. “If you score [in extra time], that’s usually the game. They’re just going to sit back, and we’re down a man. It felt like everything in the world was against us.”
But Wambach did not give up, and nor did veteran defender Christie Rampone, who – with Brazil attempting to run down the final seconds – tigerishly won back possession. The ball was duly worked forward to Ali Krieger and then to Carli Lloyd in central midfield. Certain that the final whistle would be blown at any second, Wambach remembers yelling: “Carli, kick it to me! Don’t kick it out wide!” To the striker’s eternal gratitude, her pleas went ignored, as Lloyd spread the play left to Megan Rapinoe.
It felt like everything in the world was against us.
Rapinoe had not been picked to start, and she had not, in truth, made much of an impression since coming on as a substitute ten minutes into the second half. "At one point, Pia was even thinking about taking me out, a sub for a sub," she has since admitted. "Somehow, I redeemed myself."
The midfielder did so with one of the greatest assists the Women’s World Cup has ever seen. Even at the time, before she had seen the first of innumerable replays, Wambach was in awe. "That pass from Rapinoe,” she told FIFA.com afterwards, “must have been the best of the entire tournament.”
As remarkable as the tantalising, inch-perfect cross itself – delivered to the back post from deep on the left flank – was the fact that it came from Rapinoe’s weaker foot. "I saw it the whole way," Wambach recalled, "and I know Pinoe maybe knew that I was in there." The creator was modest, and honest, enough to admit that this had not been the case. “I wish I could say I picked Abby out from 45 yards on my non-dominant foot, but I didn’t,” she conceded. “I knew she would be in and around there somewhere, but I just thought, 'I have to get this off my foot as soon as possible because [the whistle] could go at any minute.' I just hit it as far as I could. And Abby did it."
What Wambach did was judge perfectly the flight of the ball, which deceived both her marker Daiane and Brazil’s goalkeeper Andreia, and plant a powerful, precise header into the net. It was a moment that got everyone, partisans and neutrals alike, off their seats, and had another USA icon – Wambach’s idol no less - brimming with admiration.
"To be running that fast to a ball that has to travel that distance -- the chances are that you're going to get clocked by the goalkeeper," Mia Hamm told ESPN. "To be that locked in on the ball and on your technique, with the keeper coming out, is so courageous.”
The reward for such bravery was a goal that cemented the scorer’s place in US sporting folklore, and secured the most dramatic of reprieves for her team. There was an inevitability to the penalty shootout victory that followed. “When we scored that goal,” said Wambach, “it was like, ‘OK, we’ve got this.’”
Later, she would tell FIFA.com it had been “the most emotional moment of my life”. And the full significance of that wonderful, dramatic goal would only become apparent over time. "That header, it was kind of a defining moment, not just for myself and my career, but a defining moment for the team," Wambach would later reflect. "In the United States, that 2011 moment against Brazil put women's soccer back on the map.”